Littlest Babies Damaged by Infection (cont.)
According to Dr. Higgins, about 47 percent of the children with infections had some form of delay in development or a physical or mental impairment. These impairments consisted of either cerebral palsy, a visual impairment, a hearing impairment, or were manifested as low scores on tests of infant mental development or motor skills.
Dr. Higgins added that although infants with infections were more likely to have such impairments, infants who did not have infections also had a high rate of impairment, at about 29 percent.
"This is a high risk, fragile population of infants," she said.
As expected, meningitis - an infection of the membrane covering the brain and spinal cord - was associated with neurological impairments. For example, in the group that had meningitis with or without sepsis (an infection of the blood) 38 percent had low scores for mental development, compared to 22 percent of the children who did not have an infection. Children in this group were also more likely to have cerebral palsy (19 percent) than were children who did not have an infection (8 percent).
Moreover, children with infections that did not directly involve the nervous system were also more likely to have an impairment involving the nervous system. Of the infants who had sepsis alone, 37 percent had low mental development scores and 17 percent had cerebral palsy. Of the children without an infection, 22 percent had low mental development scores, and 8 percent had cerebral palsy. Of the infants who had both sepsis and necrotizing enterocolitis (an intestinal infection), 42 percent received low mental development scores, compared to 22 percent who had not had an infection.
Dr. Higgins explained that before the current study, researchers had known that ELBW infants were more likely to experience problems with the brain and nervous system, but did not know the extent of the problems. This study is the first to show how widespread the problems are, and that they appear more often in children who have had an infection.
The study authors called for additional research to determine how infections might injure brain tissue in this group of infants, as well as research to prevent infection and to prevent such nervous system damage from occurring once an infection had occurred.
Source: National Institutes of Health (www.nih.gov)
Last Editorial Review: 11/17/2004