Changes in pathogens causing early-onset sepsis in very-low-birth-weight infants

N Engl J Med. 2002 Jul 25;347(4):240-7. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa012657.


Background: It is uncertain whether the rates and causes of early-onset sepsis (that occurring within 72 hours after birth) among very-low-birth-weight infants have changed in recent years, since antibiotics have begun to be used more widely during labor and delivery.

Methods: We studied 5447 very-low-birth-weight infants (those weighing between 401 and 1500 g) born at centers of the Neonatal Research Network of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development between 1998 and 2000 who had at least one blood culture in the first three days of life and compared them with 7606 very-low-birth-weight infants born at centers in the network between 1991 and 1993.

Results: Early-onset sepsis (as confirmed by positive blood cultures) was present in 84 infants in the more recent birth cohort (1.5 percent). As compared with the earlier birth cohort, there was a marked reduction in group B streptococcal sepsis (from 5.9 to 1.7 per 1000 live births of infants weighing 401 to 1500 g, P<0.001) and an increase in Escherichia coli sepsis (from 3.2 to 6.8 per 1000 live births, P=0.004); the overall rate of early-onset sepsis was not significantly changed. Most E. coli isolates from the recent birth cohort (85 percent) were resistant to ampicillin, and mothers of infants with ampicillin-resistant E. coli infections were more likely to have received intrapartum ampicillin than were those with ampicillin-sensitive strains (26 of 28 with sensitivity data vs. 1 of 5, P=0.01). Infants with early-onset sepsis were more likely to die than uninfected infants (37 percent vs. 13 percent, P<0.001), especially if they were infected with gram-negative organisms.

Conclusions: Early-onset sepsis remains an uncommon but potentially lethal problem among very-low-birth-weight infants. The change in pathogens over time from predominantly gram-positive to predominantly gram-negative requires confirmation by ongoing surveillance.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Ampicillin / therapeutic use
  • Ampicillin Resistance
  • Antibiotic Prophylaxis
  • Cohort Studies
  • Escherichia coli / isolation & purification*
  • Escherichia coli Infections / epidemiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Infant, Very Low Birth Weight*
  • Labor, Obstetric
  • Male
  • Penicillins / therapeutic use
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications, Infectious / drug therapy
  • Regression Analysis
  • Sepsis / complications
  • Sepsis / microbiology*
  • Sepsis / mortality
  • Streptococcal Infections / epidemiology
  • Streptococcus agalactiae / isolation & purification*


  • Penicillins
  • Ampicillin