COVID-19 may be linked to an increase in bacterial brain infections in children, a new study suggests. When the pandemic hit, doctors at the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital of Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Michigan noticed an alarming 236% increase in such infections and wondered why.
Although rare, these infections can be mild, requiring only antibiotics, or severe, requiring surgery and a stay in an intensive care unit.
“There are many different reasons why this could be related to COVID, but it could also be non-COVID,” said study senior author Dr. Rosemary Olivero, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the hospital. “It may just be a short-term trend.”
To find out if other children’s hospitals are seeing the same surge in brain abscesses and other types of skull pus, Olivero’s team polled 109 hospitals for the new study.
Forty-three percent of them reported an increase in brain infections during the first two years of the pandemic. In a follow-up survey of 64 hospitals that expressed interest in providing additional information, eight responded. All of them noted an increase in the number of brain infections.
But why? It is possible that bacteria living in the nose, mouth and throat can enter the brain as the coronavirus weakens the human immune system, researchers say.
“There is a very complex interaction between the immune system and the bacteria that already live in these airways,” Olivero said, adding that many common bacterial infections such as pneumonia and sinusitis can follow a viral infection.
“Therefore, a viral infection is often the first, and then a bacterial infection can result from the initial viral infection,” she said. “Most of these more invasive brain infections that we’re seeing actually come from the sinuses.”
But Olivero said it’s also possible that the rise in brain infections was because children didn’t receive normal care or routine vaccinations during the pandemic.
Dr. Rebecca Fisk, a pediatrician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, agrees that this study does not prove that COVID caused these infections.
“I do not expect it to affect the treatment of patients, except that all pediatricians should continue to carefully examine both healthy and sick children, conducting a full examination, carefully taking anamnesis from parents, and based on this, conduct clinically necessary laboratory and x-ray studies,” Fisk said.
The results of the study were published on August 5 in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.