Doctors in Rochester, New York, have discovered a new strain of bacteria that's causing ear infections in children.
They report in the Journal of the American Medical Association that it's resistant to every antibiotic approved to treat these common infections.
Baby Genevieve Lawson was one of the first children to get the stubborn new ear infection.
"She basically had an ear infection from January until April," says Alison Lawson, Geneieve's mother. "Iit just never cleared up."
She says doctors tried one antibiotic after another without success. The infection was finally cured by a strong antibiotic approved only for adults.
Genevieve is one of nine children in the Rochester area known to have gotten the so-called superbug. Technically it's called the 19-A strain of Streptococcus pneumoniae — strep pneumo for short.
Dr. Michael Pichichero of the University of Rochester and his colleague Janet Casey discovered it.
"There are 2,722 previous strains that never had exactly this genetic information whereby the bacteria has acquired resistance not only to amoxicillin — that standard treatment for ear infection — but all 18 antibiotics approved by the U.S. FDA," Pichichero says.
Nine cases isn't a crisis. But the discovery has captured the attention of public health experts who track antibiotic-resistant germs.
"What was found in Rochester was worrying for two counts: it was a very, very resistant of strep pneumo. And it was a strain that was not covered by the vaccine," says Dr. Elizabeth Bancroft of the Los Angeles County Health Department.
She's referring to a strep pneumo vaccine introduced seven years ago. It protects against seven different strains. It's greatly reduced the incidence of pneumococcal infections in children. But researchers had predicted that by suppressing the most common strains, the vaccine would open the door to new ones like the 19-A Rochester bug.
Bancroft says once a new bug has evolved, experience teaches that it's likely to spread.
It would not surprise me if we see this in other practices across the country. It's a worrying trend for Rochester. We don't know yet what it means for the rest of the country," Bancroft says.
That's why Pichichero is warning fellow pediatricians to be alert to ear infections that don't go away. The fear is hearing loss —- or worse, that the infection might go to the lung or brain, although that's not happened.
Pichichero suggests children with the symptoms go through an ear tap, which involves sticking a needle through the child's eardrum to withdraw a sample of fluid. It's fast and doctors say it doesn't hurt much, but it's scary for kids, who have to be strapped down. And Pichichero says many doctors don't like to do it.
It might be necessary to get an ear specialist to do the procedure. But for now the chances are very slim that most doctors and most parents will have to confront a case of the new strep pneumo bug.
"It may never spread from Rochester — and it may never go to the lungs and the spinal meningitis form. And we hope not. But we just need to be aware of that possibility," Pichichero says.
Meanwhile, the makers of the current pneumococcal vaccine are working on a new version that will protect against the 19-A strain. But it won't be ready until at least 2010.