Doctors work to fight dangerous bacteria affecting babies' intestines

It is the baby disease you never hear about.

NEC is a dangerous condition striking babies' intestines soon after they are born.

It affects nearly 10% of infants born at less than 32 weeks.

35% of these children die, but now research is giving NEC babies a fighting chance at life.

If Issac Coffee's mom hugs him a little tighter these days, there is a reason. He is a survivor.

Lilian Coffee says, "They was telling me like, it's a 50/50 chance that he might make it, and there's a 50/50 chance that he might not."

Isaac was born a full 12 weeks premature, tiny and very sick.

"I was just thinking every day, like my baby, he's going to make it, he's going to be strong, and I got to be strong with him."

X-rays showed gas in the wall of his intestine.

In necrotizing enterocolitis, the intestinal wall is invaded by bacteria, causing damage, even intestinal death.

Dr. Jacqueline Saito says, "In the worst case, all the intestines can be affected, and actually go on to die. There's an in-between form, where babies, just a portion of the intestine gets sick and forms a hole."

Doctors are working to stop NEC with aggressive early intervention and clinical research, analyzing how preemies respond to specific intestinal bacteria.

"In the case of babies, if they're born very prematurely or their defenses were maybe down before that, a bacteria that doesn't bother you or me may be fatal."

After four months in the ICU at St. Louis Children's, and removal of part of his intestine, Isaac wears the battle scars of a winning fight.

Lilian says, "He made it, and he's been through a lot."

Now, Isaac is two years old, full of energy, and he and his mom have plenty to smile about.

Doctors at Washington University in St. Louis are among a group of scientists worldwide studying the impact of bacteria on our immune systems.

The researchers say the more they know about the role of bacteria in NEC, the more babies they could save.


BACKGROUND: Approximately 1 in 2,000 to 4,000 babies are born affected by necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC). A disease that mostly affects premature infants, NEC causes inflammation and infection, which can lead to the destruction of the bowels. It is the most common and serious gastrointestinal disorder that premature infants experience. This disorder usually occurs within the first two weeks of life after milk feeding has begun.

CAUSES AND SYMPTOMS: Although the specific causes of NEC are unknown, the theory is that because infants' intestinal tissue is underdeveloped, the tissue is weakened by too little oxygen or blood flow, so when feeding is started, the added stress allows bacteria in the intestines to invade and damage the intestinal tissue wall. The damage may be extensive or only affect a small portion of the intestines. After the bacteria begin to spread, the infant is unable to eat as the bacteria causes them to get sick. If the bacteria are able to invade the bloodstream, the infant can experience imbalances of minerals in the blood. In severe cases, a hole may develop in the intestines, which will allow bacteria to leak into the abdomen and cause life-threatening infections that can have serious complications.

NEW NEC RESEARCH: NEC is a serious disease with a death rate of about 25 percent. Currently, researchers are investigating the ontogeny of salivary epidermal growth factor (sEGF) in premature infants to determine the correlation to the development of NEC. Investigators found that there is a positive relation between the two, and patterns of sEGF levels over the first two weeks of life were related to the development of NEC in infants with very low birth weight.

Judy Martin Associate Director Media Relations
Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis
(314) 286-0105

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