A premature baby died on Saturday and eight other infants have been infected after Klebsiella bacteria was discovered in the neonatal intensive care unit at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer.

The bacteria was found to have infected the infants over a four-week period. Earlier this week a decision was made to close the ward to new babies. As a further precaution, infants already at the hospital were isolated from other newborns.

The premature baby that died had been born in the 26th week, to a family from central Israel. Blood samples showed that it had been infected by Klebsiella. The Klebsiella bacterium is carried in the digestive system and is transmitted by touch and may infect patients with weak immune systems, such as premature babies.

Another diagnosed infant was placed in isolation in a stable condition, and yesterday there was an improvement in its condition. Sheba reported that the baby is being treated with antibiotics and is able to breathe without assistance.

Five other premature babies were diagnosed as carriers of Klebsiella but are not ill and are also in isolation. Two other infants diagnosed in recent weeks as being ill due to Klebsiella infections have already recovered.

Sheba Medical Center management said that "immediately after the initial cases were diagnosed, there was immediate intervention which included lab work on all the patients in the neonatal intensive care unit. At the same time, efforts are being taken to prevent recurring infections. The team at the neonatal unit is in constant communication with the parents."

At Sheba they say that if no more cases of infants infected by the bacteria are discovered over the weekend, the neonatal unit will resume regular work at the start of next week.

"The bacteria develops resistance to antibiotics," says Prof. Yaakov Kuint, who heads the neonatal care unit at Sheba. "However, there are still effective antibiotics against it, which are used in treating all the infected premature babies."

The last time a Klebsiella outbreak was recorded at Sheba Medical Center was in 2007.

In March, the Chairman of the Association of Neonatology, Prof. Shaul Dollberg, said that mortality rates for premature babies in Israel are twice as high as in the west.

According to a report in November 2010 by the Gertner Institute and the Health Ministry, which collects medical data on premature infants in Israel, 26.7 percent of those born weighing 1.5 kilograms or less develop blood infection (sepsis ). Even though there has been a 30 percent drop in such incidents since 2005, the rate remains 50 percent higher than that which is common in the U.S. and western Europe, where three times more medical teams work in neonatal care units.

The high rates of infection is a main cause in closing down neonatal care units. Information processed by the Health Ministry shows that, between August 2008 to May 2010, neonatal care units in Israel were closed for a total of 78 days.

Among the neonatal care units shuttered were those at Assaf Harofeh (for 20 days ), Sheba (17 days ), Kaplan (15 days ), Laniado (12 days ), and Schneider (10 days ).

Members of the Knesset Health Committee toured the neonatal care unit at Schneider in March 2011, in order to assess the shortage in manpower.

An expert committee at the Health Ministry concluded in early December 2010 that 89 more doctors and hundreds more nurses were required at neonatal care units in Israel, in addition to 240 more beds. This was due to the rise of premature births in the country, which is also attributed to the dramatic rise in fertility treatments.