Background: 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.
Methods: 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).
Findings: 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).
Interpretation: 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.