Probiotics for Premature Infants Could Save Lives
Giving bacteria to premature infants could save lives. That is the finding of a new study from the University of Western Australia, which shows that premature infants who received probiotics—friendly bacteria—had a better survival rate than those who had not taken them.
The National Center for Health Statistics (US) announced in early April 2010 that the preterm birth rate had dropped 3 percent to 12.3 percent, according to the report, “Births: Preliminary Data for 2008.” This is down from 12.7 percent in 2007, and follows a more than 20 percent increase in the rate of premature births between 1990 and 2006. In Australia, the rate of premature births is about 7 percent, according to the State of Victoria.
Premature births are defined as those that occur before 37 weeks gestation. Infants who survive a premature birth often face lifelong challenges, including learning disabilities, hearing loss, vision problems, cerebral palsy, and other chronic conditions. Even infants who are considered “late preterm”—between 34 and 36 weeks gestation—have a greater risk of breathing problems, feeding difficulties, jaundice, delayed brain development, and re-hospitalization.
The authors of the University of Western Australia study reviewed 11 randomized trials that included more than 2,000 infants born more than six weeks prematurely. Dr. Sanjay Patole, who headed the study, noted that survival among the infants who received certain probiotics was twice that of those who did not get the friendly bacteria.
Patole remarked that based on these findings, “We believe that probiotics should now be offered as a routine therapy in preterm neonates.” His thoughts were supported by Professor William Tarnow-Mordi from the University of Sydney, who said “These results suggest that probiotics could prevent tens of thousands of deaths annually.”
Hospitals in Australia are moving toward implementing such a plan. Numerous Australian neonatal units are participating in the PROPREMS study, an ongoing trial that involves probiotics versus placebo. National clinical guidelines issued recently in Denmark recommend that infants who are more than ten weeks paremature receive probiotics daily until they are discharged from the hospital.
Probiotics are critical for the proper development of the immune system, to protect against microorganisms that can cause disease, and for proper digestion and absorption of nutrients. Introduction of probiotics to premature infants appears to save lives and may offer other health benefits as well.
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
National Center for Health Statistics
University of Sydney news release, April 20, 2010