The first sign in your child might be a skin infection, fever or a wound that won’t heal. Or maybe one of their joints or bones – a knee or elbow, perhaps – is persistently sore.
If you observe any of these things, particularly in combination, your child might have a golden staph infection that has got into their blood.
About 350 Australian children are going to hospitals with potentially fatal golden staph infections in their blood each year – more than double the estimated 165 who suffer meningococcal disease.
And in a surprising finding, about 70 per cent of these children are picking it up in the community, not in hospitals where golden staph has become a notorious pest.
Associate Professor Steven Tong, an infectious diseases physician at the Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, said he wanted to investigate golden staph infections among children because 30 per cent of people carry the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus? in their nose or on their skin.
For most people, it does not cause a problem, he said. But if it gets into your blood – through a wound, for example – it can be fatal.
The first major study of it in Australian children found that while the blood infection kills 20 per cent of adults who are struck by it, the death rate among children was 5 per cent. Babies were most at risk of death, probably because they were born prematurely and had to have intravenous lines put into their bodies, increasing the risk.
The research, published in JAMA Pediatrics, said the infection was three times more common in Australian Indigenous children than in non-Indigenous Australian children.
Although the cause of this was unknown, Associate Professor Tong said about 30 per cent of Aboriginal children of school age had skin infections that require antibiotics, and many live in housing with a lot of other people where infections can spread. The two factors might put them at greater risk.
Associate Professor Tong said while the infections did not typically escalate at the same pace as meningococcal for children, he did know of one child who had a sore joint one day and was fighting for their life three days later.
He said the bacteria could replicate when it got into the bloodstream and the body’s immune system could overreact, causing organs to shut down.
While there is no point finding out if you have the bacteria on you, Associate Professor Tong said families who experienced recurrent infections could ask a GP to help them with “de-colonisation”.
“You can put ointment into your nose, which the GP can prescribe, and wash sheets and towels in hot water for a week to try to get rid of the golden staph circulating in your household,” he said.
Other tips to avoid the infections include not using antibiotics for coughs and colds that are viral; getting wounds checked out and dressed properly; and washing your hands.
Associate Professor Tong said people in hospitals should also ask their carers to wash their hands before they touch them.
The study also examined the impact of different treatments for golden staph in children and found that a common treatment, vancomycin, wasn’t as effective as other therapies. They researchers said doctors should take note of this when treating the condition.