We've updated our Privacy Policy to make it clearer how we use your personal data. We use cookies to provide you with a better experience. You can read our Cookie Policy here.


Researchers Identify the Bacteria Responsible for Meningitis in Babies

A baby in a hospital bed.
Credit: Visualss/ Unsplash
Listen with
Register for free to listen to this article
Thank you. Listen to this article using the player above.

Want to listen to this article for FREE?

Complete the form below to unlock access to ALL audio articles.

Read time: 1 minute

A milestone study led by IMB researchers has identified the main types of E. coli bacteria that cause neonatal meningitis, and revealed why some infections recur despite being treated with antibiotics.

IMB's Professor Mark Schembri and Dr Nhu Nguyen with Associate Professor Adam Irwin from UQ’s Centre for Clinical Research led a team which discovered that around 50 per cent of neonatal meningitis infections are caused by two types of E. coli.

“Neonatal meningitis is a rare but life-threatening disease that occurs when a newborn baby is infected with bacteria,” Professor Schembri said.

Two types causing most infections

E. coli is the most common cause of meningitis in babies born pre-term, but knowing which types allows us to test for those strains and treat them appropriately."

The study was the largest ever of its type, examining the genomes of 58 different E. coli bacteria across four continents and using samples collected over 46 years.

Want more breaking news?

Subscribe to Technology Networks’ daily newsletter, delivering breaking science news straight to your inbox every day.

Subscribe for FREE

It found two types of the bacteria were responsible for the majority of neonatal infections.

Devastating impact on families

Associate Professor Irwin, who is also a paediatric infectious disease specialist at the Queensland Children’s Hospital, said meningitis can have a devastating impact on families.

“Parents may lose their child, or in a significant proportion of cases the child can suffer ongoing complications such as a brain injury, leading to developmental problems,” Dr Irwin said.

"While antibiotics can be effective in treating the infection, this relies on rapid diagnosis.

Hiding out in gut microbiome

“Also, antibiotics don’t always eliminate the bacteria – some of the babies we tracked showed signs of a complete recovery before suffering repeated invasive E. coli infections.”

The researchers discovered the bacteria causing subsequent infections were the same as in the initial infection.

“It’s most likely that bacteria hide out in the intestinal microbiome,” Professor Schembri said.

High risk of subsequent infections

“This tells us we need to keep monitoring these babies after their first infection, as they are at a high risk of subsequent infection."

Professor Schembri said the E. coli that can lead to meningitis also cause urinary tract infections and colonise the intestinal tract.

“There is something about these types of E. coli that equips them to cause both infections,” he said.

Exploring how bacteria infect

“Our next step is to examine the bacteria’s pathway from the intestinal tract or urinary tract into the bloodstream, and then to the brain, so we can consider new ways to stop them.”

Reference: Nhu NTK, Phan MD, Hancock SJ, et al. High-risk Escherichia coli clones that cause neonatal meningitis and association with recrudescent infection. eLife. 2024;12:RP91853. doi: 10.7554/eLife.91853

This article has been republished from the following materials. Note: material may have been edited for length and content. For further information, please contact the cited source.