Bringing a new baby home should be one of the happiest days of our lives. Imagine how it feels to have a baby prematurely, whisked away from you into an intensive treatment hospital unit. But how much worse to discover that your baby, too ill to feed from your breast, has developed blood poisoning from contaminated liquid food given by the hospital. Last night the news broke that one baby had died and another 14, all being treated in neonatal intensive care units in six hospitals across England, are ill from the same form of blood poisoning, or septicaemia.
The germ is Bacillus cereus - well known to doctors as a common form of food poisoning in adults which, unusually, doesn't come from meat. The classic cause of this infection in adults is eating reheated fried rice. Leftover steamed rice can become contaminated with the germ, which thrives if the rice is not refrigerated. Rapid frying means that the dish doesn't reach the critical temperature of 100°C needed to kill the bacterium. The result in adults is severe nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.
In adults, recovery within 24 hours is the norm. In babies, whose immune system is immature, even more severe complications like potentially fatal blood poisoning can result. These babies were being fed intravenously - through tubes straight into their bloodstream - because they weren't well enough to be fed by mouth. While little consolation to the family of the baby who died so tragically, most of the other babies are reported to be responding to antibiotics.
As soon as the connection was made with a possible food contamination, action was swift. Public Health England (PHE) and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) have launched an investigation, and all intensive baby care units in the country are on high alert. It seems that rather than being the result of sabotage, this shocking incident was the result of accidental contamination. Because the germ is widespread in our environment, any minor breach in strict hygiene and safety standards in the laboratory where it is prepared could have caused the contamination. The germs produce spores which are very resistant, even to standard disinfectants.
None of this, of course, excuses this lapse. But it does highlight two very different points. Firstly, we are lucky in the UK that this sort of tragedy is rare enough to cause headlines - and that in turn is due to the remarkable work of scientists across the UK. Britain should be rightly proud of its reputation as a world leader in science. Secondly, it reminds us that germs can be deadly, and we should never take the weapons we have against them for granted. The World Health Organisation published a stark warning with its report this year on the potential damage of misusing antibiotics - 'A post-antibiotic era - in which common infections and minor injuries can kill - far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the 21st Century.' They cite overuse of antibiotics and failure to take them properly as major factors in the rise of drug resistance. Let's not forget that tiny, defenceless infants like these could be among the first victims.