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Probiotics May Not Protect Preemies from Serious Illness, Study Says

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According to a new study published in The Lancet, probiotics—good bacteria found in certain foods and supplements—may not protect preterm infants from serious complications such as necrotizing enterocolitis, sepsis, or death. The findings challenge previous research that has suggested some potential benefits from probiotics, researchers said.

For the study, more than 1,300 preterm infants were given either a placebo or the probiotic Bifidobacterium breve, which researchers selected because it was previously reported to benefit preemies. This time, the differences were minimal. Sepsis occurred in 11 percent of the probiotic group and 12 percent of the placebo group. Death before hospital discharge occurred in 8 percent of the probiotic group and 9 percent of the placebo group. And necrotizing enterocolitis (a bowel condition) occurred in 9 percent of the probiotic group and 10 percent of the placebo group, even though a previous study found probiotics reduced the risk of necrotizing enterocolitis in very preterm infants.

"These two large trials suggest that, while probiotics are generally safe in the short term, they are not universally effective, and that different strains and combinations should be investigated separately," researchers said in a news release. "The evidence from this trial does not support the routine administration of probiotics to the preterm infant, and the validity of combining trials of different probiotics to perform meta-analyses must be questioned."

And while no safety issues associated with the use of probiotics were reported, according to Thomas Abrahamsson of the division of pediatrics at Linkoping University: "These findings stress the fact that only probiotic strains that have been proven effective in clinical trials should be used in clinical practice."

Hollee Actman Becker is a freelance writer, blogger, and a mom. Check out her website holleeactmanbecker.com for more, and follow her on Twitter at @holleewoodworld.