Ounce of Prevention Women May Get Antibiotics before Delivery to Reduce Risk of Infant Bacterial Infection

Article excerpt

Many pregnant women can expect something different during labor: antibiotics.

To reduce life-threatening bacterial infection in newborns, federal officials have released guidelines that will likely result in hundreds of thousands of women being treated with penicillin or similar drugs immediately before giving birth.

The goal is to prevent very young children from being infected with group B streptococci. "Right now, that's the most common cause of bacterial infection in newborns," explained Dr. Edwin L. Anderson, a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases at St. Louis University Hospital.

About one in four pregnant women carry the bacteria, the overwhelming majority without any symptoms, Anderson said. Although most carry the bacterium in their digestive tracts, some have it in their birth canals. When these women give birth, they can pass the bacteria to their children, who then become infected themselves.

"This is one of the most lethal bacterial infections in infants," said Dr. Randall C. Floyd, a maternal and fetal medicine specialist at the University of Missouri Medical School in Columbia. "Last year, there were 310 deaths in the United States among infants less than 90 days old" blamed on the bacteria, he said.

Many more infants - about one in every 500 - develop less serious infections like pneumonia, meningitis or blood diseases, the doctors said.

While many of those children can be treated, some will suffer lifelong effects. For instance, between 15 percent and 30 percent of meningitis survivors will have some long-term brain damage, ranging from learning disabilities to more serious impairment, Floyd said.

"By the time you know the baby is infected," Anderson added, "you're really behind the eight ball - the organism has had time to produce disease. …