Therapeutic Inertia in U.S Neonatal Units (vis-a-vis Probiotics)

“More than 90% of very low birth weight (VLBW) infants receive substandard care” could be the headline of a recent article/editorial (J Pediatr 2014; 164: 980-5 & 959-60).  Instead they are titled: “Cohort Study of Probiotics in a North American Neonatal Intensive Care Unit” and “Probiotic Supplementation in Preterm Infants: It is Time to Change Practice.”

In the article introduction, the authors state: “In 2011, faced with overwhelming evidence that probiotics could decrease NEC in preterm infants, and because there were no significant risks described in the extensive literature, we decided to introduce probiotics as routine care for the prevention of NEC.”

Methods: Prospective cohort study of infants at a single center NICU.  Examined rates of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) and death for 17 months before and after introduction of a probiotic (FloraBABY).  This probiotic (0.5 g) was mixed with water and administered just before milk once a day.  It was started at the first feeding and continued until the infant reached 34 weeks postmenstrual age.

Key findings:

  • Probiotics reduced NEC from 9.8% to 5.4% (OR for NEC 0.51)
  • Probiotics reduced combined outcome for NEC or death from 17% to 10.5% (OR 0.56).  Reduction in death by itself did not meet statistical significance.

Why, in 2012, were probiotics only used in 8-9% of VLBW?

Potential profits for probiotics are small which has limited studies of specific strains.  The probiotic, FloraBABY, in this study cost 11 cents per day in amount used; however, since the probiotic came in a tub, the actual cost was $12.79 for a 60-g tub for each patient.  Thus, manufacturers are unlikely to support studies to garner FDA approval.

Yet, there have been 22 randomized controlled trials published which “showed substantial benefits of probiotics and no adverse events.” A recently completed ProPrems trial (Jacob S et al, presented at 2013 PAS Annual Meeting) used a probiotic called ABC Dophilus Probiotic Powder for Infants.  This trial showed “a significant, >50%, reduction in NEC despite an incidence in their control patients of only 4.4%” and despite the fact that >95% of infants received breast milk.

“Good quality control and confirmation of the contents of the preparation are essential…There seems to be no further reason to delay the introduction of this evidence-based therapy in the NICU.”  The adoption of probiotics could avoid 2500 cases of NEC every year in North America.

The editorial notes that the evidence for probiotics is much better than many other therapies used in NICUs.  They note that some have argued that “the evidence that probiotics reduce mortality rates is as conclusive as that for surfactant for respiratory distress syndrome.”  A recent Cochrane review of 17 trials and >4900 VLBW infants showed that the RR of severe NEC for probiotics versus control was 0.41.

If people really understood this issue, there would be outrage over this issue.  In the U.S., there was recently extensive coverage over inaction about a faulty ignition switch which has been linked to at least 13 deaths.  The potential reduction in NEC and deaths with probiotics is likely much greater.

While the editorial recommends involving parent representative groups, I recommend discussing this issue with your neonatology colleagues along with your “quality care” team to find out what they are going to do about it.  Given the enormous costs in most NICUs, it is likely that each unit could self-fund a quality project (with consented patients) to provide probiotics to this vulnerable population.

Bottomline: Probiotics have excellent evidence as prophylaxis for NEC in VLBW infants.  Physicians need to advocate for their usage to “avoid years of therapeutic inertia.”

Related blog post: One More Day Syndrome & Necrotizing Enterocolitis …

Disclaimer: These blog posts are for educational purposes only. Specific dosing of medications/diets (along with potential adverse effects) should be confirmed by prescribing physician/nutritionist.  This content is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment provided by a qualified healthcare provider. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a condition.

3 thoughts on “Therapeutic Inertia in U.S Neonatal Units (vis-a-vis Probiotics)

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