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Drug-Resistant Ear Infections Emerge

Researchers Identify Superbug Resistant to Antibiotics
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Sept. 17, 2007 (Chicago) -- Since the 2000 introduction of the pneumococcal vaccine to prevent ear infections in children, a superbug that is resistant to all the antibiotics approved to treat the condition has emerged, researchers report.

Children who carry the superbug develop particularly agonizing middle ear infections and often need surgical insertion of pressure-equalizing tubes in the ears, says Michael Pichichero, MD, a pediatrician and vaccine researcher at the University of Rochester in Rochester, N.Y.

Pneumococcal bacteria cause 30% to 55% of kids' ear infections. More than four out of five kids get at least one ear infection by the age of 3. It's the most common reason doctors give antibiotic drugs to children.

Vaccines and Middle Ear Infections

In 2000, a pneumococcal vaccine became commercially available for children under age 2. Sold as Prevnar, the pneumococcal vaccine attacks seven strains of the bacterium Streptococcuspneumoniae that can cause ear infections.

In the early years following its introduction, the pneumococcal vaccine cut middle ear infections by 20%, Pichichero says.

But by 2003, problems began to emerge, he tells WebMD. That’s when doctors began to see kids with ear infections caused by strains of S. pneumoniae other than the seven included in the vaccine.

The new study was presented here at a meeting of the American Society for Microbiology.

(How do you feel about using antibiotics for ear infections? Talk about it on WebMD's Parenting: 9-12 Months message board.)

Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Strain

The study included 162 children with recurrent ear infections. All of the children had received the pneumococcal vaccine.

All the children underwent ear taps, a procedure during which doctors put a needle into the eardrum to draw out infected fluid so they can examine the bacteria.

They found that 59 children carried the S. pneumoniae bacterium.

Of these, nine children carried a new strain called 19A that is not included in the vaccine and proved resistant to all FDA-approved antibiotics for ear infections in children.

"Children infected with this strain were unsuccessfully treated with two or more antibiotics," Pichichero says.

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