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Bacterial strain cited for deaths of newborns

Tuesday July 04 2023
child

Without advanced care, babies often die from post-infectious hydrocephalus caused by infections during their early weeks of life. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

By PAULINE KAIRU

A groundbreaking discovery in Uganda, where paediatric hydrocephalus or “water on the brain,” is alarmingly prevalent, has revealed that a previously unidentified bacterial strain could be the cause of widespread newborn deaths.

This devastating neurological condition is caused by an abnormal buildup of cerebrospinal fluid deep within the cavities that cushion the brain, leading to harmful pressure on the brain tissues and eventually enlargement of the head.

Without advanced care, babies often die from post-infectious hydrocephalus caused by infections during their early weeks of life.

Even those who make it to hospital struggle to recover due to damage created by infections.

Read: Being born in a city no longer increases chances of survival

With no known cure, this congenital disease, which in some cases develops after an infection or haemorrhage in the brain forms the most common indication for neurosurgery in infancy worldwide.

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For years, researchers were unable to identify the agent responsible for the cases in Uganda.

Now scientists say in a paper published June 14 in The Lancet Microbe, that after 16 years pursuing the cause of these mysterious cases, identified Paenibacillus thiaminolyticus bacteria as responsible.

Using advanced gene sequencing, the investigators at Columbia and Penn State Universities discovered previously thought harmless organism Paenibacillus thiaminolyticus swimming inside brains of infected infants.

Also discovered was that these African strains picked up highly lethal virulent toxins resistant to first-line antibiotics used to treat sick infants. Research had shown how the bacteria originated from sepsis infections that even after treatment, remained present when patients returned weeks later with expanding heads from hydrocephalus development.

Researchers now believe Paenibacillus thiaminolyticus bacterium is at the root of thousands of post-infectious hydrocephalus cases annually occurring mainly around swampy regions on Lake Victoria’s northern banks such as the source of Nile River and Lake Kyoga’s northern and southern banks of the River Nile.

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