The results of body fluid and surface cultures from 148 preterm infants 33 weeks gestational age obtained routinely on admission to a neonatal intensive care unit were reviewed. The aim was to determine the occurrence of congenital bacterial sepsis in this population and to examine whether surface cultures yielded information helpful in management. Gastric aspirate and umbilical, nasal and ear swabs were cultured and the results were compared to those of blood cultures. Nine infants (5·4%) had congenital bacterial sepsis diagnosed by positive blood cultures. Only the results of microscopy of gastric aspirate were available within hours of birth and before the results of blood culture. Microscopy of gastric aspirate, demonstrating pus cells, alone had a sensitivity of 0·86 in predicting congenital sepsis but a specificity of 0·49; the specificity, however, rose to 0·80 if both organisms and pus cells were observed on microscopy. Thus, only this combination was a useful pre-indicator of congenital sepsis. In infants who did not develop septicaemia, treatment was modified only if was cultured from surface sites; in all such cases, the organism was grown from the ear swab. Our results demonstrate that congenital bacterial sepsis is common amongst very preterm infants admitted for neonatal intensive care but routine screening of surface cultures should be restricted to an ear swab only.


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