Instead of the usual diagnostic challenge, the case this month is a baby with complicated otitis media (OM) and a True-False quiz.
A 23-month-old black boy presented to the pediatric clinic for evaluation of fever of one day's duration. He had no cough, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or skin rash. His appetite and usual level of activity were decreased. There were no known sick exposures at home or elsewhere.
His past medical history is positive for having been a twin born at 28 weeks gestation. He had respiratory distress syndrome with a short period on a ventilator, but had no pulmonary sequelae. Additionally, 16 days prior to this visit, he had undergone a tonsillectomy, adenoidectomy and insertion of tympanostomy tubes because of recurrent OM. His immunizations were up-to-date and documented.
Examination during the visit was positive only for fever of 103° F, bilateral OM, with tubes in place and a somewhat lethargic appearance, for which he received a sepsis work-up; complete blood count; urinalysis; cerebrospinal fluid analysis with cultures of CSF, blood and urine; and a chest radiograph. The only abnormality was the peripheral white blood cell count (WBC), which was 23,000 with a predominance of polys and band forms.
He was admitted for observation and treated with an oral second-generation cephalosporin for the OM with dramatic improvement in his fever and overall well being. He was discharged the next day for out-patient follow-up. The following day he came back to the clinic with the return of lethargy, decreased appetite and fever.
His blood culture, taken two days earlier, was found to be positive but no organism had yet been identified. He was immediately re-admitted, and a repeat sepsis work-up was done. This time he had cloudy CSF with 138 WBCs per cubic mm, 54% of which were polys, 20% were lymphocytes, and a protein of 187 mg/dL. The glucose was 16 mg/dL, with a serum glucose of 149 mg/dL. The Gram's stain is shown in the figure. He was empirically treated with meningitic doses of ceftriaxone (Rocephin, Roche Laboratories), a third-generation cephalosporin, and vancomycin pending culture and sensitivity results.
This patient had an excellent outcome. I actually enrolled him in an occult bacteremia study by Jim Bass, MD, that was ultimately published in the Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal in June 1993. He had randomized to the oral therapy arm of the study. However, he had to be removed from the study due to a procedural error and poor communication, resulting in a second-generation cephalosporin treatment instead of amoxicillin/clavulanate (Augmentin, SmithKline Beecham), which was the oral agent being compared to injectable ceftriaxone. I doubt that the choice of oral antibiotic really made any difference, but we still could not use him in the results.
Would he have developed meningitis if he had received ceftriaxone? Probably not, but the hard data to prove it statistically does not exist. He certainly fulfilled the criteria for being at high risk (about 10%) for bacteremia (WBC count >15,000, fever of 103° F or more, and age 3 months to 3 years). However, most of the time the cause is due to Streptococcus pneumoniae and it is much less likely to cause meningitis than Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) and Neisseria meningitidis. Now, with the widespread use of conjugated Hib vaccine, the incidence of bacterial meningitis has dramatically decreased. The physician still needs to use clinical judgement to decide who to empirically treat and who can be observed without treatment. There's no cookbook solution.
Vancomycin was not really added in this case because at that point in time (late 1980s, early 1990s), resistant pneumococcus was not that big of a problem. However, today it is routinely added pending sensitivities. While still debatable by some, I would also pretreat with steroids prior to the first dose of antibiotics.
Influenza season is just around the corner. Identify your high-risk patients to call in for vaccine next month.
Have you been sufficiently confused by the issue of thimerosal in vaccines? This is your hint for next month's case.
Acknowledgement: Thanks to James W. Bass, MD, COL, USA (Retired) of Honolulu, Hawaii for contributing the picture of the Gram's stain used in this case.
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