Given that today is world prematurity day it seems fitting to talk about prematurity at the absolute extreme of it.
It has been some time since as a regional program we came to accept that we would offer resuscitation to preterm infants born as early as 23 weeks gestational age. This is perhaps a little later in the game that other centers but it took time to digest the idea that the rate of intact survival was high enough to warrant a trial of resuscitation. This of course is not a unilateral decision but rather a decision arrived at after consultation with the family and interprofessional team. To be sure it is not an easy one. Other centers have argued that resuscitation should be offered to those infants as young as 22 weeks gestational age and data now exists due to enough centres doing so to provide families with some guidance as to expected survival rates and importantly the likelihood of disability. This topic has been covered previously in /2015/09/25/winnipeg-hospital-about-to-start-resuscitating-infants-at-23-weeks/. Why cover this topic again? Well an article on CNN might have something to do with it.
Resuscitating Below 22 weeks
This week as I was perusing the news I came across a rather shocking article on CNN. Born before 22 weeks, ‘most premature’ baby is now thriving. The article tells the tale of a baby delivered at 21 weeks and 4 days that now as a three year old is reaching appropriate milestones without any significant impairments. It is a story that is filled with inspiration and so I am not mistaken I am delighted for this child and their family that this outcome has occurred. When the lay press latches onto stories like this there is no doubt a great deal of sensationalism to them and in turn that gathers a lot of attention. This in turn is a great thing for media.
A Few Caveats Though
With the exception of pregnancies conceived through IVF the best dating we have is only good to about +/- 5 days when an early first trimester ultrasound is performed or the date of the last menstrual period is fairly certain. A baby though who is born at 21 weeks + 4 days may in fact be 22 +3 days or even more depending on when the dating was done (second trimester worse). Let’s not take away though from the outcome being this good even at 22 weeks. That is a pretty perfect outcome for this family but the point is that this baby may in fact be older than 21 weeks.
Secondly, there are millions of babies born each year in North America. Some of these infants are born at 22 weeks. How do they fare overall? From the paper by Rysavy et al from 2015 the results are as follows.
If you look at the overall rate of survival it is on an average of 5.1%. If you take a look though at those infants in whom resuscitation is provided that number increases to a mean of 23%. Intact survival is 9% overall. The odds aren’t great but they are there and I suspect the infant in the article is one of those babies. Flipping the argument though to the glass is half empty, 91% of infants born at 22 weeks by best estimate who are offered resuscitation will have a moderate or severe disability or die. I am not saying what one should do in this situation but depending on how a family processes the data they will either see the 110 chance of intact survival as a good thing or a 9/10 chance of death or disability as a very bad thing. What a family chooses though is anyone’s best guess.
Should we resuscitate below 22 weeks if the family wishes?
I guess in the end this really depends on a couple things. First off, how certain are the dates? If there is any degree of uncertainty then perhaps the answer is yes. If the dates are firm then I at least believe there is a barrier at which futility is reached. Perhaps this isn’t at 21 weeks as some patients may indeed be older but think about what you would offer if a family presented at 20 weeks and wanted everything done. What if it were 19 weeks? I suspect the point of futility for all lies somewhere between 19-21 weeks.
As I prepare to attend the annual meeting in Ottawa tomorrow for the Fetus and Newborn Committee I think it is prudent to point out just how difficult all of this is. The current statement on Counselling and management for anticipated extremely preterm birth I think hits on many of these issues. The statement is the product on not only the think tank that exists on this committee but was the product of a national consultation. I know I may be biased since I sit on the committee but I do believe it really hits the mark.
Should we be thinking about resuscitating at 21 weeks? For me the answer is one clouded by a whole host of variables and not one that can be easily answered here. What I do think though is that the answer in the future may be a yes provided such infants can be put onto an artificial placenta. Even getting a few more weeks of growth before aerating those lungs is necessary may make all the difference. The NICUs of tomorrow certainly may look quite different than they do now.