Data from multiple clinical trials, mostly conducted outside the US, indicate that probiotic prophylaxis is an effective intervention for prevention of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) in preterm infants. Probiotics are routinely used in many countries. However, in the US, probiotic use in preterm infants is limited (6.7% of very low birth weight (VLBW) infants in the US were exposed to probiotics in 2014, Vermont Oxford Network (VON)). Probiotic products are often considered in ‘generic’ terms, but considerable variation exists between commercially available probiotics in terms of their quantity and quality. The study objectives were to identify the probiotic products used in VLBW infants within the US, and to determine whether their use was supported by reliable evidence.
A phone survey of all neonatal intensive care units (NICU) participating in VON within the US was conducted between May and September 2015 to identify NICUs that are using probiotics in VLBW infants. Data was collected regarding specific probiotic brands, timing, dose and duration of probiotic use. An evidence based literature search, limited to randomized controlled trials in VLBW infants, was conducted to determine whether the use of identified probiotics were supported by reliable evidence.
There was a 70.3% (500/711) response rate to the phone survey. During the survey period, 14.0% of NICUs were using probiotics in VLBW infants (70/500). Probiotics were routinely given to all VLBW infants in 8.8% (44/500) NICUs, while it was given in selected VLBW infants in 5.2% (26/500) of NICUs. The common indications for selective use of probiotics were feeding intolerance and antibiotic use. Sixteen commercial probiotics products were identified through the phone survey. Probiotic products most commonly used were Culturelle (27.1%), Biogaia (14.3%), Gerber Soothe (14.3%) and Florababy (8.6%). The literature search identified evidence that evaluated 4/16 probiotic products identified (Culturelle, Align, Biogaia and ABC Dophilus). Only ABC Dophilus was reported to have a protective effect against NEC, but is used sparingly in US NICUs (2.9%).
The probiotics use in VLBW infants within the US is increasing, but is still limited. There was no evidence for safety or efficacy of 90% of the probiotics currently used in US NICUs, and therefore, caution is warranted.
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Viswanathan, S., Lau, C., Akbari, H. et al. Survey and evidence based review of probiotics used in very low birth weight preterm infants within the United States. J Perinatol 36, 1106–1111 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/jp.2016.144