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Targeting Newborn Infections

By Jackie Powder

Globally, more than three million newborns die each year, many succumbing in the first week of life to bacterial infections such as sepsis, pneumonia and meningitis.

In high-income countries, maternal screening and early diagnosis have been highly effective in reducing neonatal infection deaths. However, in many developing countries little is understood about infection risk factors and methods of transmission.

Sommer Scholar alumna Grace Chan, MD, PhD ’13, MPH ’06, and colleagues have filled in some gaps. According to the study, published in PLOS Medicine in August, newborns of infected mothers were six times more likely to acquire an infection compared to infants whose mothers were infection-free. Infants born to mothers with bacterial colonization (in the reproductive tract) were nine times more likely to become infected.

Investigators from the Bloomberg School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital analyzed 83 studies published between 1960 and March 2013 on maternal infection and neonatal infection, only seven of which were from areas with high neonatal mortality.

Researchers point to the need for further studies in developing countries to determine whether interventions that target high-risk pregnant women—those with infections and colonization—can reduce neonatal infection rates.

“Often, by the time a newborn is identified as sick, it’s too late to treat them,” says Chan, a former associate in International Health now at Harvard. “We need better diagnostics that are fast, cheap and highly sensitive, and we need to reach these newborns sooner.”