Experts Struggle to Explain Rise in Children's Brain Infections

Pandemic could be linked to increase, or even COVID-19 itself
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 29, 2023 5:00 PM CDT
Experts Struggle to Explain Rise in Children's Brain Infections
A CT scan of a patient with brain abscesses in her left temporal lobe.   (Getty/Sopone Nawoot)

From 2015 to 2021, Nevada's Clark County averaged five cases a year of pediatric brain abscesses. Last year, there were 18. Researchers presented the finding this week to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Epidemic Intelligence Service conference to bring attention to the baffling increase in life-threatening brain infections among children, NBC News reports. "In my 20 years' experience, I've never seen anything like it," said Dr. Taryn Bragg, an associate professor at the University of Utah, per CNN. Bragg treated the Nevada patients.

Cases in Nevada have tapered off lately, but Bragg said that last spring, "every single call I was getting from the ER was a kid coming in with a brain abscess." Historically, brain abscesses are rare. The CDC found a national rise in pediatric cases in summer 2021, then a peak the next March before a decline to baseline levels by May 2022. But Bragg cautioned that cases in Nevada were still increasing when the CDC investigation ended. Abscesses are usually caused by fungi or bacteria entering brain tissue because of injury or infection. An expert said they occur in about one of every 8 million people.

A coauthor of the CDC report said the increase could partly be attributable to the jump over the winter in respiratory viruses and bacterial infections, including group A strep. The lack of exposure to viruses and bacteria in the pandemic could have hurt the ability to fight them off, experts say. Respiratory viruses can bring sinus infections, which can make children more vulnerable to brain abscesses. Some suspect COVID-19 is directly involved. "We were wondering if the virus itself was causing some sort of inflammatory process that was allowing these bacteria to invade," said Dr. Rosemary Olivero, whose Michigan hospital had a 236% increase in the number of abscesses in the first two years of the pandemic. "That has not been a question that we've been able to answer yet." (More children's health stories.)

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