Background: Most childhood deaths occur within the first 2 months of life. Simple symptoms and signs that reliably indicate the presence of severe illness that would warrant urgent hospital management are of major public health importance.
Objectives: To describe the disease profile of sick young infants aged 0-59 days presenting at King Edward VIII Hospital, Durban, and to assess the association between clinical features assessed by primary health workers and the presence of severe illness.
Methods: Specific clinical signs were evaluated in young infants by a health worker (nurse), using a standardised list. These signs were compared with an assessment by an experienced paediatrician for the need for urgent hospital- or clinic-based care.
Results: Nine hundred and twenty-five young infants were enrolled; 61 were <7 days old, 477 were 7-27 days old, and 387 were 28-59 days old. Illnesses needing urgent hospital management in the age group <7 days were hyperbilirubinaemia (43%) and sepsis (43%); in the age group 7-27 days they were pneumonia (26%), sepsis (17%) and hyperbilirubinaemia (15%), and in the age group 28-59 days they were pneumonia (54%) and sepsis (15%). The clinical sign most consistently predictive of needing urgent hospital care across all groups was not feeding well. Among those over 7 days old, a history of difficult feeding, temperature 237.5 degrees C and respiratory rate > or =60 per minute were also important.
Conclusions: The simple features of feeding difficulties, pyrexia, tachypnoea and lower chest in-drawing are useful predictors of severity of illness as well as effective and safe tools for triaging of young infants for urgent hospital management at primary care centres. Neonatal hyperbilirubinaemia, pneumonia and sepsis are the common conditions for which young infants require urgent hospital-based management.