Posted : 2018-01-12 20:10
Updated : 2018-01-13 10:02

Four newborns died from blood poisoning: police

Police search Ewha Womans University Medical Center in southwestern Seoul on Dec. 19 after the deaths of four newborns. / Korea Times file

By Kim Hyun-bin

The deaths of four newborns last month, in an intensive care unit at a hospital in Seoul, were caused by blood poisoning from a bacterial infection, police said Friday.

"Blood tests on the infants showed all four were infected with Citobacter freundii, which could be fatal to immunocompromised patients, including premature babies," the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency said, quoting a final autopsy report from the National Forensic Service.

Citrobacter freundii is a type of gram-negative bacterium commonly found in a healthy human gut, but can often cause respiratory, blood-related or urinary symptoms in immunocompromised patients, including premature babies.

The bacterium can also be antibiotic-resistant, raising speculation of overuse, which could have contributed to the four babies' deaths, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said.

Forensics officials raised the possibility the babies were infected while injecting nutritional supplements which could have been contaminated, or when opening or connecting to intravenous tubes, but said they will need more investigation to confirm that.

On Friday, Yonhap News Agency suggested another possible cause of death. It reported the nutritional supplement injected in the infants was SMOFLIPID, a product banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

"Deaths in preterm infants have been reported," Yonhap quoted the FDA warning. "Preterm and low-birth-weight infants have poor clearance of intravenous lipid emulsion and increased free fatty acid plasma levels."

If this turns out to be true, it will hold the medical staff accountable for negligence.

On Friday, the police also charged five medical staff members at Ewha Womans University Hospital, including the head doctor and nurse in charge, with involuntary manslaughter for negligence of duties resulting in the deaths of the four premature babies.

The four babies died within a two-hour period Dec. 16, while being treated at the hospital in southwestern Seoul.

It took a month to identify the cause because the preliminary autopsies on the babies found no evident cause of death, although the possibility of a bacterial infection was left open.

"It is rare for deaths by bacterial infection to all happen within a close period of time," the forensic service said. "Based on the fact all the infants showed a drastic change in their heartbeats and had bloated bellies, it is likely they were infected around the same time."

The hospital said the doctors in charge performed CPR on the babies after they showed signs of cardiac arrest. The four babies died between 9:31 p.m. and 10:53 p.m. The families said the babies all had bloated bellies and difficulty breathing.

The incident shocked the nation, prompting the police, the city government and the KCDC to launch a full investigation to find the cause of the deaths.