Infections account for almost three quarters of Australian infants needing to see a doctor and 1 in 10 presenting to an emergency department by 12 months of age, according to a new study.

The research, led by the Murdoch Children's Research Institute (MCRI) and published in the Journal of Paediatrics Child Health, found 72.4 per cent infants visited a GP and 10.4 per cent infants attended the emergency department for an infection, with respiratory illnesses the most common cause. 

MCRI's Dr Rebecca Rowland said few studies have addressed incidence rate, risk factors and health service utilisation of infection in Australian infants until now.

Dr Rowland said this data would inform public health prevention strategies, health systems planning and resource allocation. 

"Infant infections place significant burden on primary health care," she said. "Quantifying this burden in the Australian setting and understanding the associated factors can help target resources and prevention efforts."

The research involved 1074 Geelong families in the Barwon Infant Study, a major study conducted at Barwon Health in collaboration with MCRI and Deakin University. Infection data was collected by parent reports and GP and hospital records at one, three, six, nine and 12 months of age.

Dr Rowland said the study found maternal antibiotic exposure in pregnancy, having older siblings, attending childcare, and reduced rates of breastfeeding were associated with infant infections.

"Antibiotics are potentially life-saving for bacterial infections generally and also in pregnancy, so the key messages are promoting appropriate antibiotic use in pregnancy, and also breastfeeding for at least the first month of life. These factors may help reduce the early life burden of infection," she said.

"On average, infants who were breastfed for at least four weeks experienced about 30 per cent fewer overall infections."

The study found a link between attending childcare for anywhere between 1 to 40 weeks and overall infection, but the researchers stressed the broad positive impacts of childcare on child development, the family and society. 

On average, infants with siblings aged two to six years had more overall infections, and those with siblings aged 10 to 21 years had an increased risk of gastroenteritis. 

Globally, infection is responsible for almost five million deaths worldwide in pre-school children.

MCRI's Professor David Burgner said respiratory infection presentations, such as the flu, to The Royal Children's Hospital have dropped dramatically during the COVID-19 lockdowns indicating the importance of good hand hygiene in limiting infection spread, as well as an increased uptake of the influenza vaccine.

"One of the few silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the emphasis placed on hand hygiene in potentially infectious settings, like childcare and shopping centres," he said. "This has not only helped limit COVID-19 spread in adults, but also the normal childhood infections we would otherwise have seen over winter." 

Researchers from The Royal Children's Hospital, Barwon Health, Deakin University, University of Melbourne and Monash University also contributed to the findings.   

Publication: Rebecca Rowland, Zia Sass, Angela Pezic, Lawrence Gray, Mimi Tang, Peter Vuillermin, Anne-Louise Ponsonby, and David P Burgner on behalf of the Barwon Infant Study Investigator Group. 'Burden of Infection in Australian Infants,' Journal of Paediatrics Child Health. DOI: 10.1111/jpc.15174

*The content of this communication is the sole responsibility of MCRI and does not reflect the views of the NHMRC.

Available for interview: 
Professor David Burgner, MCRI Group Leader Inflammatory Origins  
Dr Rebecca Rowland

Media Contact: 
Bridie Byrne
MCRI communications specialist
+613 9936 6211/ 0403 664 416 

About MCRI
The Murdoch Children's Research Institute (MCRI) is the largest child health research institute in Australia committed to making discoveries and developing treatments to improve child and adolescent health in Australia and around the world. They are pioneering new treatments, trialling better vaccines and improving ways of diagnosing and helping sick babies, children and adolescents. It is one of the only research institutes in Australia to offer genetic testing to find answers for families of children with previously undiagnosed conditions.

The establishment work and infrastructure for the Barwon Infant Study was provided by the Murdoch Children's Research Institute, Deakin University and Barwon Health. Subsequent funding was secured from the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia (GTN1164212, 1082307 and 1147980), The Jack Brockhoff Foundation, the Scobie Trust, the Shane O'Brien Memorial Asthma Foundation, the Our Women's Our Children's Fund Raising Committee Barwon Health, The Shepherd Foundation, the Rotary Club of Geelong, the Ilhan Food Allergy Foundation, GMHBA Limited and the Percy Baxter Charitable Trust, Perpetual Trustees. In-kind support was provided by the Cotton On Foundation and CreativeForce. Research at Murdoch Children's Research Institute is supported by the Victorian Government's Operational Infrastructure Support Program. The Barwon Infant Study has received additional support from the Gandel Trust, Eirene Lucas Foundation and Gwyneth Raymond Trust with help from the Barwon Foundation.