Nowadays it's much rarer for young children to be hospitalized for severe infections than it was even a decade ago. Still, almost 2.5 million infants are admitted to the hospital each year due to infections, and if children up to age 5 are included, the number of infection-caused hospitalizations soars to 4.5 million annually, according to a recent report in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.
Luckily, most serious infections are preventable, experts say. Vaccines have helped to dramatically reduce the numbers. Simpler measures, such as soap and water, are also tremendously effective at removing even scary bugs like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. To protect your child from a surprise hospital stay, watch out for the pathogens most often responsible for pediatric admissions:
Just a few years ago this severe diarrhea and dehydration-causing virus was a real menace, landing more than 50,000 infants and young children in U.S. hospitals annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since 2006, however, hospitalizations have dropped by 45 percent, thanks largely to the arrival of two vaccines—RotaTeq and Rotarix—and the agency's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices' recommendation that children be immunized. After helping cripple the virus's threat, Rotarix hit its own snag in March when bits of pig virus unexpectedly showed up in the vaccine, prompting the Food and Drug Administration to advise suspending its use. In May, however, the agency deemed the vaccine safe and gave doctors the go-ahead to again administer Rotarix, which is given orally in two doses versus RotaTeq's three. Alas, vaccinated kids can still catch the virus. But those who do usually have a much milder infection than unvaccinated children, says Robert Baltimore, a professor of infectious and bacterial diseases at Yale University School of Medicine. The vaccines are recommended for babies between 2 and 6 months old.
This bug, which can lead to life-threatening meningitis and deafness, is the most common bacterial cause of pneumonia. But pneumococcal infections have become a lesser danger among children in the U.S. since 2000, when vaccination with the Prevnar or PCV7 vaccine became routine. After its introduction, severe pneumococcal diseases in children younger than 5 fell by 80 percent, according to the CDC. The vaccine protects against seven types of S. pneumoniae, while more than 90 so-called serotypes exist. In Feburary, the ACIP recommended the use of a new vaccine instead, named Prevnar 13, that children under age 2 should receive in four doses. PCV13 protects against an antibiotic-resistant form of the bacteria as well as 12 other serotypes. If a child has a fever, cough, and noisy, labored, or rapid breathing, pneumonia—an infection of the lung—may be the culprit.
H1N1 "Swine Flu"
Since April 2009 when experts first identified an H1N1 outbreak, the virus has killed an estimated 1,300 children and adolescents. Young kids are particularly vulnerable, with the highest rates of U.S. hospitalizations for H1N1 being reported in children under age 4. As with regular flu, symptoms include fever, cough, and runny nose. But infants may have no respiratory signs of the virus, according to the federal government's flu.gov website. Although swine flu had a milder impact than expected last year, experts have recommended that everyone older than 6 months get vaccinated ahead of the upcoming flu season. The 2010-11 seasonal flu vaccine is expected to cover both seasonal flu and H1N1, while last year's came in two separate vaccines. Count on H1N1 to continue making headlines in months ahead, says Baltimore.
Nearly all infants and toddlers will be exposed to respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, and can even catch the bug from a parent, who may mistake their own RSV infection for a common cold. The risk of RSV infection is smaller in young healthy children, but in infants and premature newborns, RSV can be serious and may lead to pneumonia. The virus is responsible for killing as many as 200,000 children worldwide, and hospitalizing anywhere between 75,000 and 125,000 infants in the U.S. annually, according to the CDC. No RSV vaccine exists. As a preventive measure, high-risk infants are typically given an antibody shot against it.