Rare bacteria kills Sparta baby; source unknown

Parents say Enterobacter sakazakii, which led to Axel Shears' death, was in formula

Axel Shears Sparta baby death
A courtesy photo of Axel Shears.


SPARTA, Mich. (WOOD) — The pictures on the nursery wall tell a story of the love of a child and the heartbreak of a sudden loss.

“For it to be all just taken away within a month, it’s…” started Jamie Shears, her voice trailing off as she recalled the birth and death of her son Axel.

Kory and Jamie Shears had tried for years to give their 5-year-old son C.J. a sibling. Their prayers were answered in June when Axel was born.

“It was like, finally. And then we were all excited about it,” Jamie Shears said.

Then, one night in June, Axel became ill. His parents decided it wasn’t the normal infant fussiness, so they took Axel to the emergency room.

A courtesy photo of Axel Shears in the hospital.
A courtesy photo of Axel Shears in the hospital.

“He started having mini-stroke and then continued to have seizure after seizure after seizure,” Kory Shears said.

Nine days later, Axel died. The cause of death: Enterobacter sakazakii, meningitis and sepsis.

Enterobacter sakazakii, which was the root cause of Axel’s death, is a bacteria that leads to a rare condition that usually affects infants less than a month old. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on average, four to six cases are reported in the U.S. every year.

Axel’s parents say they think he got it from the powdered infant formula they were giving him.

“For a child of his age — at 2 weeks, a month — there’s no other way to get it other than the formula,” Kory Shears said.

But how the bacteria got in the formula remains a mystery. The Shears’ lawyer says half a used can of Enfamil Gentlease and a full, unopened can both tested negative for the germ. There wasn’t enough left in another empty can to test. The sterilized water used to make Axel’s bottles also tested negative.

A spokesman for Mead Johnson, which manufactures the formula, said the company has cooperated fully with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Spokesman Chris Perille said dozens of cans from the same lot have been tested and all of them were clear.

In fact, past cases investigated by the CDC were found to have developed after the cans were opened. A 2011 outbreak investigation of four cases in four states found no signs of the bacteria in formula with the same lot numbers as the formula traced to the outbreak cases. The manufacturers also tests the products before they leave the plant.

So while it appears unlikely the formula was contaminated in the can, powdered formula remains susceptible to the germ once the can is opened.

That’s why the Shears are speaking out.

“We never have heard of this infection, ever,” Jamie Shears said.

“Nobody has,” Kory Shears said.

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