Baby died after being infected with antibiotic-resistant superbug
University College Hospital, where a premature baby died last month following a superbug outbreak. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
A premature baby died at one of England’s leading hospitals during an outbreak of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that affected 13 infants, it emerged today.
The incident has raised fresh fears that patients are being injured and killed by superbugs, which doctors are struggling to treat because they lack the right antibiotics to combat them.
The dead child was one of 13 premature babies who were found to have gram-negative bacteria on or in their bodies last month in the neonatal unit of University College London Hospital.
The bacteria – which included E coli and Klebsiella – posed acute difficulties because they are resistant to gentamicin, the antibiotic that UCLH uses to tackle infections in newborns.
In four of the 13 cases, the bacteria had got into their bloodstream and infected them, while it was found solely on the skin of the other nine. The baby who died was aged under three months, but the hospital would not confirm whether it was a boy or a girl, nor the particular infection carried.
Hospital spokeswoman Sharon Spiteri stressed that the baby died with the bacteria, rather than as a direct result of it.
“The baby died of a number of factors including the infection, though the infection wasn’t the main cause of death,” she said.
Two others of the four infected babies also died, but of conditions unrelated to the bacteria, she added. The fourth recovered and went home.
“Bacteria like these are an ever present danger. All four babies were very premature when they were born and as such were particularly high-risk and vulnerable to these bacteria,” she said.
Such babies’ fragile skin and immature organ systems place them at high risk if such infections occur.
The hospital responded by undertaking a deep clean of the neonatal unit, introducing extra cleaning procedures and replacing gentamicin as its first-choice drug for treating such infections in babies.
All babies entering UCLH’s neonatal unit are screened for evidence of infection on admission and weekly after that. The regime is designed to ensure that any possible spread can be contained quickly. In total, 15 babies from the unit were tested after routine surveillance revealed the presence of the gram-negative organisms.
“Development of antibiotic resistance is unfortunately a common occurrence for all neonatal units, even more so in units such as ours which care for the most premature babies,” Spiteri added.
Although all NHS hospitals have to record and pass on details of any case of MRSA and C difficile, they are not obliged to do the same with gram-negative infections such as pseudomonas or acinetobacter.
As a result it is impossible to know how many cases occur and how much harm they cause. In opposition, the Conservatives pledged to make all such bugs automatically reportable to the Health Protection Agency but have backtracked on that since taking office in May.
The HPA only publishes highly limited data based on voluntary reporting by some hospitals, but that does not include details of the medical damage the bugs cause.
Katherine Murphy, director of the Patients Association, said: “We need accurate reporting of all superbugs, not just MRSA and C difficile. It’s disgraceful that we don’t routinely get this information, given that these gram-negative infections cause real harm.”
Dr John McConnell, the editor of medical journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases, said last month’s outbreak was “yet another example of how our options for treating gram-negative infections are becoming more limited”.
The baby’s death also underlined the need to speed up work to develop a new generation of antibiotics to deal with these infections, McConnell added.
“We’re way behind on that,” he said. “There’s a real gap and an urgent need here.”
Pharmaceutical companies had not invented significant new drugs for that purpose in around 20 years, he added.
Kellie Stewart of Bliss, the baby charity, said: “It’s very sad when a baby dies, but this type of thing is not uncommon. Babies born prematurely face lots of challenges, and infection is one of them.”