Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infection has led to nearly 30,000 child hospitalizations in the last decade, according to data from just over two dozen children's hospitals newly published in the journal Pediatrics. MRSA cases in kids leapt from 2 in every 1,000 hospital admissions in 1999 to 21 in 2008, researchers reported. What has experts especially concerned is that the so-called superbug, which causes pneumonia and bone and joint infections, is being acquired in the community, not in the hospital as it has in years past. What's more, this breed of MRSA, which survives on surfaces as well as on hands, is genetically different than hospital-acquired MRSA and can cause severe, even lethal infections in otherwise healthy children. The majority of MRSA skin infections—unsightly red bumps or boils—can be treated, however, without hospitalization, says Baltimore. The bacteria often spread among children playing contact sports, as they lurk on their sweaty gym socks, jerseys, and other workout gear that may be shared.
While Neisseria meningitidis infection is more rare than others on this list, it is extremely harmful, leading kids quickly downhill before doctors have time to administer antibiotics. The bacteria, which can cause meningitis, bloodstream infections, or death, can live in the nose and mouth and spread among people living in close quarters. A vaccine that protects against four types of N. meningitidis is recommended for children ages 11 and older before they go off to college. A type not protected by the vaccine is dangerous in kids younger than 2. Beware of the telltale splotchy purple rash, especially if it darkens or spreads rapidly, a signal to see a pediatrician right away.
Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a bacterial infection that causes a very distinctive cough and cold-like symptoms. A vaccine for pertussis has long held it in check. Within the last 30 years, however, U.S. pertussis cases have been increasing. The infection is usually mild in adults and children, but in infants, pertussis may be life-threatening. Pneumonia, seizures, and brain damage are additional dangers. DTaP, a combination vaccine that also shields against tetanus and diphtheria, is given to children in five doses: once at ages 2, 4, and 6 months, once between 12 and 18 months, and once between 4 and 6 years old. Because the vaccine's benefits wane over time—and because infants under 2 months are not protected—adults and healthcare workers who are in regular contact with infants are advised to get a whooping cough booster, the Tdap, to avoid spreading the infection.
[See our Best Children's Hospitals rankings and search for one near you.]