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In the paper by Jaffe et al, the authors describe the CT findings of 31 patients with thoracic empyema who had three investigations (chest radiography, CT scan and ultrasound scan).1 They correctly conclude that routine CT scanning has no role for children with empyema treated with uro-kinase and percutaneous chest drainage. It is interesting to note that CT scanning is becoming popular as nearly half the subjects had a chest CT scan on referral. They fail, however, to describe a role for chest CT, but do imply that it may be indicated for patients undergoing video-assisted thoracoscopic drainage (VATS). There is no evidence in the current literature supporting the use of CT scans before VATS. The British Thoracic Society guidelines do not recommend routine CT scans in children with empyema.2
In our centre all patients with empyema requiring intervention undergo VATS (approximately 40/year). We would suggest that chest CT scanning is not indicated before VATS in nearly all cases. We have found chest CT scans to be helpful, however, in situations where the patient has not responded to appropriate treatment with antibiotics and VATS. In this situation the possibilities are reaccumulation of pleural fluid, abscess formation or more extensive parenchymal involvement, differential diagnoses that are distinguished by CT scanning and information that is critical to the decision to reoperate (or not).
In addition, Jaffe et al do not take the opportunity to critically examine the role of chest ultrasound scans in patients with empyema. In our experience, clinical examination and chest radiography can determine the presence of pleural fluid. If the purpose of the ultrasound scan is to determine whether the fluid is simple (a parapneumonic effusion) or organised (empyema), this can be achieved more simply with a lateral decubitus or erect chest radiograph. The decision to undertake definitive management with urokinase or VATS is determined by the presence of unremitting infection and/or fluid volume in the pleural space. It is an outdated paradigm that the distinction between simple and organised pleural fluid makes any difference to subsequent treatment or outcome. The main use for ultrasound scanning should be for those children who are found to have a unilateral white-out on the chest radiograph at presentation and for whom the distinction between pleural space and parenchymal disease is difficult to make.
Competing interests: None.