Probiotics can help extremely low birthweight infants gain weight, it was reported recently. Now researchers say it is possible to save thousands of very premature babies by adding probiotics to their feeds.
Probiotics are 'friendly' bacteria present in many foods like yogurt and cheese. Babies born more than six weeks prematurely currently represent between three and four per cent of all births.
The systematic review of 11 randomised trials in over 2000 babies born more than six weeks prematurely is published by Dr Sanjay Patole's group, from the University of Western Australia.
In an accompanying commentary in Pediatrics
, Professor William Tarnow-Mordi from the University of Sydney said the research had significant implications for survival rates of premature babies worldwide.
"These results suggest that probiotics could prevent tens of thousands of deaths annually," he said.
"However, it will be some months before suitable preparations are available in Australia."
Dr Patole said the review showed that survival was doubled in premature babies who had received certain probiotics.
"We believe that probiotics should now be offered as a routine therapy in preterm neonates," he said.
"However, selection of a safe and suitable product with documented probiotic properties and close monitoring is a must before offering this therapy as routine in this high-risk and very deserving population."
The findings have been published recently in Pediatrics
, a leading clinical journal.
A number of Australian neonatal units are participating in the PROPREMS study, an ongoing randomised trial of probiotic versus placebo, co-ordinated by the University of Melbourne and funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council.
Professor Tarnow-Mordi said enrolment in PROPREMS - and similar trials in other countries - was an excellent way for babies to receive appropriate probiotics until suitable products were available.
In Denmark, a national clinical guideline issued this year recommends that babies born more than ten weeks prematurely receive daily probiotics, until discharge from hospital.