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Probiotics and breastfeeding could help protect premature infants from infectious disease

Thursday, October 31, 2013 by: David Gutierrez, staff writer
Tags: probiotics, premature infants, infectious diseases

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(NaturalNews) Supplementation with probiotics may help prevent a serious and often deadly condition called necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) in premature infants, recent research has suggested.

NEC refers to an extreme inflammation of the gut thought to be caused in part by infectious microbes. It affects between 8 and 13 percent of infants with birth weights less than 3 lbs. 4 oz. and is fatal in up to 50 percent of these cases. Survivors of NEC often suffer long-term neurodevelopmental damage.

Although steroids are an approved method to prevent NEC in premature infants, they can often carry severe side effects. This makes the development of less dangerous preventive methods a priority for premature infant health care.

The power of probiotics

Many researchers believe that premature infants are especially susceptible to NEC because their immune systems are underdeveloped and they have not yet developed a healthy balance of gut microbes, particularly if they were delivered by C-section and not exposed to the flora of the vaginal environment.

"Neonates with very low birth weight usually acquire microbial flora mainly from the intensive care environment rather than from their mother," wrote a team of British researchers in The Lancet in 2007.

Because probiotics have been shown to contribute to a healthy balance of gut flora in adults, there has long been interest in whether a similar effect might help prevent NEC in premature infants. Recently, a team of Brazilian researchers published a review of this research in Jornal de Pediatria (Rio). The researchers reviewed 11 randomized clinical trials that studied the effectiveness of probiotics in preventing NEC in premature infants. The studies involved a total of 2,887 children.

The researchers found that premature infants given probiotics were significantly less likely to develop NEC or neonatal sepsis, spent less time in the hospital, adopted a normal diet sooner and had lower overall mortality than children not given probiotic supplements.

Among children who did contract NEC, death rate was not affected by probiotic use.

This mirrors the results of an earlier meta-analysis, published in The Lancet in 2007. In that study, which included 1,393 low-birth-weight, premature infants, a variety of different probiotics were tested, including Bifidobacterium breve, B. infantis, B. bifidus, B. lactis, Lactobacillus GG, L. casei, L. acidophilus, Saccharomyces boulardii and Streptococcus thermophilus.

L. GG and S. boulardii have previously been shown to sometimes cause sepsis in premature infants. However, the study found no difference in rates of sepsis between the probiotic and the control groups. The researchers also noted that there were no reported cases of sepsis induced by the probiotics, thus diminishing the degree of concern over this potential side effect to probiotic supplementation.

More research needed

Health professionals agree that further research is needed before probiotics can be recommended for all preterm infants. This is because more studies are needed to refine medical understanding of the probiotic strains, doses and treatment durations that are appropriate for preterm infants at different stages of development. Nevertheless, the data so far are highly promising.

It's also important to note that while studies have shown that probiotics have great benefits for both premature infants and for adults - including promoting digestive and immune health, weight loss and mood regulation - the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children's Fund recommend that full term infants be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life. Thus, while it may be beneficial for a nursing mother to take probiotics, no supplements of any kind should be given to babies younger than six months old.

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