Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis believe it may be necessary—even critical—to change how we treat babies who are born prematurely, especially if we want to preserve their gut diversity and allow beneficial probiotic bacteria to thrive and support overall health.
Results from a recent study revealed that not only do preemies have ten times fewer species of bacteria in their intestinal tracts, but many of the bacteria species present could potentially be harboring antibiotic resistant properties similar to pathogenic bacteria such as Escherichia coli (E. coli), Klebsiella, and Enterobacter. Why is this important?
Because premature babies are considered high risk for infection, they are almost always treated with antibiotics shortly after delivery, but researchers now believe administering antibiotics right away may not always benefit the health of the baby. “The conventional wisdom has been antibiotics can’t hurt and they might help,” said study co-author Dr. Barbara Warner. “But our new study demonstrates that wide-scale use of antibiotics in this population does not come without cost.”
In the study, the babies who received the most extensive antibiotic treatment had significantly less gut diversity—but even more alarming was the fact that treatment with one antibiotic was shown to trigger antibiotic resistance throughout the gut, since the microbes with antibiotic-resistant properties were found to inhabit the same areas.
“This data demonstrates the collateral damage these drugs can do,” said lead author Dr. Gautam Dantas, who points out that by routinely treating preemies with antibiotics we may be giving potentially harmful bacteria a reason to stick together. He and his team hope their findings encourage physicians to fully evaluate the risks involved with antibiotic treatment in premature infants.
One possible treatment change may be to use less potent antibiotics (instead of commonly used broad-spectrum drugs) for shorter periods of time, but Dantas believes it may even be possible to design more effective antibiotics that inhibit the effects of harmful bacteria in the gut without actually killing them. When antibiotics do kill harmful bacteria, they often wipe out many species of good bacteria as well.