Live bacteria boost gut health of premature babies

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Boosting the milk of premature babies with healthy bacteria may have helped half the number of serious gut problems and infections, according to new research led by the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH) in collaboration with the University of East Anglia. The study was published in The British Medical Journal.

Researchers reviewed the outcomes of almost 1,000 very premature babies who were admitted to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) over a 10-year period.

In January 2013, the NNUH became one of the first hospitals in the United Kingdom to introduce daily probiotics dosing for NICU babies on the back of growing evidence that adding live Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium probiotic bacteria to milk reduces the number of cases of necrotising enterocolitis (NEC). NEC is a life-threatening gut condition in which the tissues of the intestine become inflamed and start to die, and mainly affects very preterm babies, the researchers said.

The study found that since introducing routine probiotics on the neonatal unit at NNUH, the numbers of cases of NEC among very preterm babies has dropped from 7.5 percent to 3.1 percent, and the number of sepsis cases fell from 22.6 percent to 11.5 percent.

Paul Clarke, MD, lead author of the study and consultant neonatologist at the NNUH, said that prevention of necrotising enterocolitis is a top research priority and there is strong evidence to support neonatal units giving premature babies probiotics on a routine basis.

"Our [study]… has been a big team effort to boost the gut health of these tiny vulnerable babies at the beginning of their lives and help them get the right gut bacteria from the start,” said Clarke. “We are proud to have completed this important research, which suggests that our use of probiotics has saved lives by preventing many cases of NEC and sepsis. We're feeding more than one billion healthy live bacteria a day to each baby and it seems to have had the beneficial effect on reducing NEC that we had hoped for… so we hope this research might encourage more hospitals to start giving early probiotics to protect babies."