Parenting: newborns to toddlers

6 things you should know about the Staphylococcus bacteria, a potential killer

Staphylococcus is a bacteria that most commonly causes skin infections, but can be fatal for people with low immunity, such as newborns. So how can parents protect babies and rest of their family?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 May, 2016, 11:48pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 May, 2016, 8:54am

Nearly a third of healthy adults have Staphylococcus bacteria (known as Staph for short) in their noses (usually temporarily) and about one in five have it on their skin. Typically, it causes no problems or only fairly minor skin infections. So why is Staph – which recently made one newborn in Hong Kong very ill and infected several other babies at the same hospital too – potentially lethal?

Here are six things you should know about the bacteria.

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1. Newborns are especially vulnerable to Staph

While Staph usually causes only minor infections in adults, the bacteria can cause serious infection in newborns, who are especially vulnerable to serious Staph infections in the first week after birth, according to Dr Ho Pak-leung, associate professor in the department of microbiology and president of the Carol Yu Centre for Infection of the Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine at the University of Hong Kong.

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“If they are exposed to any Staph, including [superbug] methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), they could have serious infections such as bloodstream infections. Some Staph also produce toxins that can lead to discoloration or burns on the skin. We should take Staph infections in newborns seriously.”

Staphylococcus aureus is the most dangerous of the many common Staph bacteria. It is this type of bacteria that has infected a number of babies born at a Hong Kong private hospital recently.

We should take Staph infections in newborns seriously
Dr Ho Pak-leung

2. Staph bacteria are very hardy

Staph can live on inanimate objects such as pillowcases or towels long enough to transfer to the next person who touches them. The bacteria can spread from person to person by direct contact, through contaminated objects, or, less often, by inhalation of infected droplets dispersed by sneezing or coughing.

An individual may even cause his or her own infection by moving the bacteria from their nose to other body parts with their hands, sometimes leading to infection.

With newborns, Staph may come from any person who comes into contact with the baby - from parents to visitors to health care workers, Ho says. If the baby’s environment, such as an incubator, is infected, Staph can also spread to the baby.

3. Staph infections can range from mild to life-threatening.

The bacteria tend to infect the skin, often causing abscesses. However, it can travel through the bloodstream and infect almost any site in the body, particularly heart valves (endocarditis) and bones (osteomyelitis).

“In newborns, it’s common for Staph infections to start in the umbilicus because there’s a wound there. Sometimes the bacteria could cause sores in the nappy and groin area,” Ho says.

Staph infections first present as redness on any part of skin, like a rash, Ho explains. It typically causes a pus-forming infection – and in babies it is common to see it within 24 hours of infection. But within a day it can also develop into a larger, more aggressive infection and spread to the blood and eventually the brain, which can be fatal.

4. Treatment usually involves antibiotics and draining of the infected area

“If parents notice anything unusual with their baby they should bring the baby to see a doctor immediately. They shouldn’t take chances and shouldn’t try to make guesses by themselves. If they do, there could be delay in getting the correct treatment,” Ho says.

A swab of the infected site is sent to the lab for culture to diagnose a Staph infection and results can take one to two days.

Some staph infections no longer respond to common antibiotics.

5. Staph infections are sporadic in Hong Kong.

Ho says there have been Staph outbreaks in one private hospital in Kowloon and at least three public hospitals in the past 10 years.

“If a hospital unit has a new case of Staph, the hospital would start an investigation. If two cases are found, it would be considered an outbreak,” he says. “The usual procedure would be to check all the babies who are delivered over the period and to look at the characteristics of the Staph. The lab can do typing to compare the fingerprint of the organisms collected from different babies to find out if they are the same or a different organism. There are many Staph organisms.”

6. Good hygiene is your best defence against Staph.

Ho says parents of newborns should practise good hygiene not only in hospital but when they take the baby home. “If any adult has a wound or skin infection, they should cover it up and clean their hands before touching the baby,” he says.