Central Pa. hospital searches for source of infection that struck eight babies, including three who died

All eight babies were born at less than 27 weeks and considered “very premature.”

  • David Wenner/PennLive

(Danville) — Doctors at Geisinger Medical Center said Monday the infection that struck eight babies is a common one found in water and liquids. The infection, called pseudomonas, may have contributed to the deaths of three of those babies, doctors said.

All eight babies were born at less than 27 weeks and considered “very premature.” A normal pregnancy lasts 40 weeks. The babies were stricken in Geisinger’s neonatal intensive care unit.

Dr. Mark Shelly, Geisinger’s director of infection control and prevention, said pseudomonas is a common bacteria found in many places. “You can’t have a dozen roses without having some pseudomonas in the base,” he said.

He said it often doesn’t cause an illness. However, it can enter by way of surgery sites, medical tubes and breathing ventilators, and can be especially dangerous for babies already weak as a result of being born prematurely, he said.

Shelly said tests have failed to turn up pseudomonas bacteria in Geisinger’s NICU, causing doctors to suspect the source is outside the NICU. But he also said the bacteria hasn’t been detected elsewhere in the hospital.

The first baby was stricken in early August, doctors said. Although the type of infection wasn’t immediately identified, antibiotic treatment began right away, doctors said.

Shelly said Geisinger has taken steps including increasing chlorination of water, adding filters to water taps, extra cleaning and reviewing processes. He said Geisinger has changed some processes that could be at fault, but the exact cause remained unknown as of Monday.

Doctors said the bacteria may have entered the NICU by way of products such as medication. Shelly said he has “some suspicions” of the source. “I don’t want to close off my thinking until I have more proof,” he said.

Four babies who were stricken “are doing well” after being treated with antibiotics, and another “continues to improve,” the doctors said during a news conference at the hospital about 70 miles north of Harrisburg in Danville in Montour County.

Doctors said as a voluntary “precaution” Geisinger would transfer to another hospital any baby born at less than 32 weeks, and would also send mothers expected to deliver at less than 32 weeks to different hospitals.

Dr. Rosemary Leeming, Geisinger’s chief medical officer, said babies born at 32 weeks or more face no risk at Geisinger, and its NICU will continue to care for them.

“Any mom who is delivering a child over that age should not have any concern about delivering here at Geisinger Medical Center,” she said.

Dr. Frank Maffei, Geisinger’s chair of pediatrics, said the 25-year-old Geisinger NICU has never seen a comparable outbreak of infections. He said the NICU’s survival rate for babies weighing less than three pounds is among the top 20 percent in the country.

Geisinger is collaborating with the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to address the infections.


PennLive and The Patriot-News are partners with PA Post.

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