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Lancet. 2008 May 31;371(9627):1848-53. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(08)60798-9.

Infection and sudden unexpected death in infancy: a systematic retrospective case review.

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Department of Paediatric Pathology, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children and the Institute of Child Health, University College London, London, UK.



The cause and mechanism of most cases of sudden unexpected death in infancy (SUDI) remain unknown, despite specialist autopsy examination. We reviewed autopsy results to determine whether infection was a cause of SUDI.


We did a systematic retrospective case review of autopsies, done at one specialist centre between 1996 and 2005, of 546 infants (aged 7-365 days) who died suddenly and unexpectedly. Cases of SUDI were categorised as unexplained, explained with histological evidence of bacterial infection, or explained by non-infective causes. Microbial isolates gathered at autopsy were classified as non-pathogens, group 1 pathogens (organisms usually associated with an identifiable focus of infection), or group 2 pathogens (organisms known to cause septicaemia without an obvious focus of infection).


Of 546 SUDI cases, 39 autopsies were excluded because of viral or pneumocystis infection or secondary bacterial infection after initial collapse and resuscitation. Bacteriological sampling was done in 470 (93%) of the remaining 507 autopsies. 2079 bacteriological samples were taken, of which 571 (27%) were sterile. Positive cultures yielded 2871 separate isolates, 484 (32%) of which showed pure growth and 1024 (68%) mixed growth. Significantly more isolates from infants whose deaths were explained by bacterial infection (78/322, 24%) and from those whose death was unexplained (440/2306, 19%) contained group 2 pathogens than did those from infants whose death was explained by a non-infective cause (27/243, 11%; difference 13.1%, 95% CI 6.9-19.2, p<0.0001 vs bacterial infection; and 8.0%, 3.2-11.8, p=0.001 vs unexplained). Significantly more cultures from infants whose deaths were unexplained contained Staphylococcus aureus (262/1628, 16%) or Escherichia coli (93/1628; 6%) than did those from infants whose deaths were of non-infective cause (S aureus: 19/211, 9%; difference 7.1%, 95% CI 2.2-10.8, p=0.005; E coli: 3/211, 1%, difference 4.3%, 1.5-5.9, p=0.003).


Although many post-mortem bacteriological cultures in SUDI yield organisms, most seem to be unrelated to the cause of death. The high rate of detection of group 2 pathogens, particularly S aureus and E coli, in otherwise unexplained cases of SUDI suggests that these bacteria could be associated with this condition.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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