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Friday, 18 August, 2000, 10:26 GMT 11:26 UK
'Bug bunnies' threaten sick children

Toys bring comfort to seriously-ill children
Cuddly toys given to children in intensive care units may be harbouring large numbers of dangerous bacteria, say experts.

A team of Australian doctors looked at all the soft toys in its neonatal intensive care unit - which looks after newborn babies, many of whom are born prematurely.

They found the teddy bears and stuffed rabbits crawling with many different strains of bacteria - many of which could cause infection.

Of course, in normal life, most things we touch are covered with bacteria, but in an intensive care unit, efforts are made to keep the environment as sterile as possible.

Any infection picked up here while the baby is weak from being born prematurely, or from a serious operation, could prove fatal.

The investigators, reporting their findings in the journal Paediatrics, in total grew 86 cultures of bacteria from 34 toys owned by 19 infants.

These included 13 of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) - the so-called "superbug" which is hard to kill with antibiotics.

When the blood from the infants was tested, eight were found to have bacteria present, with five of those harbouring the same bugs as their toys.

Staff often encourage parents to place a soft toy actually inside the incubator which is housing their child in intensive care.

While bedding is often washed, the toys are generally not, making it much more likely for the bacteria to thrive.

The reports authors noted: "The potentially more pathogenic organisms such as MRSA and streptococcus are a cause for concern in the neonatal environment."

But they added:"Most parents and staff like to see toys in infants' cots to humanise the harsh environment of the intensive care unit.

"Therefore it would be inappropriate to remove toys from an infant's cot if it were unneccessary."

However, toys have been implicated before to cause outbreaks of infection in children.

In 1998, a serious outbreak of drug-resistant bacterial infection in a paediatric ward was blamed on water containing bath toys.

An analysis of toys in the waiting rooms of GP surgeries in the UK found many were harbouring potentially harmful bugs.

One medical newspaper, Doctor, actually launched a "toy amnesty", encouraging GPs to send in their worst, oldest toys for destruction, with the chance to win brand new ones in their place.

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See also:

17 Feb 00 | Health
Hospital infections: case studies
23 Feb 00 | Health
Hospital fabrics harbour bugs
17 Mar 00 | Health
Bad prescribing boosts baby bugs
05 Apr 00 | Health
Clampdown on hospital hygiene
17 Feb 00 | Health
NHS bugs 'kill 5,000 a year'
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