Detecting Pathogens in Pediatric Infections: Swab, Tissue, or Bottle?

Identifying the pathogenic microorganism in childhood osteomyelitis and septic arthritis is essential to tailoring appropriate treatment. But the traditional methods of swab and tissue culturing have subpar success rates in pediatric patients, identifying the pathogen in only 40% to 60% of cases. In the October 21, 2020 edition of The Journal, Shin et al. report their findings comparing microbial identification rates using pediatric blood culture bottles (BCBs), typical culture swabs, and tissue specimens.

Over 3 years, the authors prospectively collected intraoperative specimens from 40 pediatric patients (mean age of 7.2 years) who underwent surgery for a presumed osteoarticular infection. Half of the patients had received oral or intravenous antibiotics in the 3 weeks prior to surgery, while the other half had received intravenous cefazolin after culture specimens were obtained in the operating room. Intraoperative culture specimens were obtained in 3 different manners for all patients:

  1. Four 21-gauge needles were dipped into the infected fluid and were used to inoculate 4 pediatric BCBs – 2 aerobic and 2 nonaerobic.
  2. Two swabs were placed in direct contact with the infected tissue.
  3. Two solid tissue samples were collected and placed in 2 sterile containers.

In these 40 cases, the microbial identification rate of the BCB method was 68%, compared to 45% with the swab method and 38% with the tissue method—all statistically significant differences. In 9 patients (23%), the pathogen was only identified with the BCB method. No samples showed positive culture growth with the other 2 methods if the BCB culture was negative. Interestingly, in a subgroup analysis of 15 patients with methicillin-susceptible Staphylococcus aureus (MSSA), the authors found no difference in detection rates between the 3 methods, but in cases involving organisms other than MSSA, detection with BCBs was significantly higher than with both swab and tissue cultures.

The apparent superiority of BCBs to detect microbial organisms could be due to the characteristics of pediatric BCBs, which enhance microorganism growth in a small amount of liquid. Although there are some concerns that this enhanced BCB detection could lead to increased rates of false-positives from contaminants, I think the risk of false positives is a viable tradeoff if we can more quickly and accurately identify pathogens in pediatric infections. As Shin et al. emphasize, “Sequelae resulting from these infections are particularly unfortunate for pediatric patients.”

Matthew R. Schmitz, MD
JBJS Deputy Editor for Social Media

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