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However, the bacteria and other microbes often found in preemies, such as Candida fungus, are also more dangerous, researchers from Duke University Medical Center noted.
"You see diversity emerge earlier in [full-term] infants, whereas in premature infants, they seem to be stuck -- they have fewer types of bacteria and the diversity doesn't change a lot over the first month of life," the study's senior author, Dr. Patrick Seed, assistant professor of pediatrics at Duke, said in a Duke news release.
"Because the babies get colonized with a specific kind of bacterium, for example, it appears these potentially dangerous species take over space in the gut and bowel. Their dominance may put the babies at risk of infection," Seed pointed out.
The researchers used DNA typing of the bacteria, fungi and parasites to examine the microbes in 11 premature infants. The investigators found five of the babies had blood infections and three had necrotizing colitis -- the death of bowel due to an infection. The premature infants also had less diversity of bacteria in their digestive systems than full-term infants -- even after the antibiotic treatments they were given ended.
The study, published in the Dec. 9 online edition of PLoS One, also found the majority of microbes found in the premature babies included types of bacteria and yeast known to cause very serious infections. In addition, the preterm babies had many more infections than the full-term babies, particularly in the first month of life. And these infections lasted longer.
The study authors noted the digestive tracts of the premature babies were primarily infected with organisms found in stool specimens, but also included Staphylococcus epidermidis -- a type of staph infection. Although premature babies' digestive tracts are known to be a source of infection, the findings shed light on all organisms present -- not just one specific type of bacteria.
The researchers pointed out that it's unclear how the newborns could have picked up these infections, but possible sources could be breast milk, blood or their environment.
"It's important to know where these pathogens come from so that doctors can possibly manipulate the babies' environment or their digestive systems," Seed explained in the news release.
He added that some bacteria are beneficial for babies and their developing immune systems.
"It's a question of balance," Seed said. "As vulnerable as these babies are, we still wouldn't want to wipe out all of the bacteria, even all of the potentially harmful bacteria."
-- Mary Elizabeth Dallas
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