I wish it were otherwise, but in my practice, I have seen a growing number of pregnancies complicated by signs of substance withdrawal in newborn babies. Print, online, and broadcast news sources include regular reports on the “opioid crisis”. Data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information indicate that in 2016-17, about 1 in 200 newborns in Canada were affected by symptoms of drug withdrawal after birth. As this represents an average, there are no doubt some centres with much higher rates, while others may seem far lower depending on local usage patterns. Wherever you practice, if you care for newborns, you must learn how to treat this.
If you ask a physician in training how best to treat such conditions, their first response is often to use a medication such as morphine, thinking that it is best to treat an opioid withdrawal with the same class of drug. While this may be true, it is important to note that beginning with something much simpler, if not more natural, may reap tremendous benefits.
The Canadian Pediatric Society (CPS) released a new practice point this week, Managing infants born to mothers who have used opioids during pregnancy. While the document addresses the use of medical treatment, it highlights something far more important. Think of managing such pregnancies as a pyramid, with substance avoidance (the best strategy) on the bottom. The next level would be to manage newborns by keeping mothers and babies together. The top of the pyramid—that is, the fewest number of cases—would be treating these babies with medications.
For many families, avoidance is just not possible. Whether mothers use opioids due to addiction or chronic pain, it is simply unsafe to quit cold turkey. In October 2017, the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (SOGC) recommended against opioid detoxification in pregnancy because of the high risk of relapse. We should commend pregnant women who take responsibility for their health and seek care to stabilize on medications such as methadone or buprenorphine to manage their symptoms. After delivery, though, taking these babies and placing them on medications in a special care nursery should be a last resort.
Getting back to nature
Medications do work, but giving them means admitting babies to special care nurseries. This forced separation from families and, in particular, their mothers, actually leads to longer stays in hospital. Skin-to-skin care and breastfeeding contribute to better bonding between mother and child and have been associated with shortened hospital stays. In our centre, we have seen great success with many infants managed for up to seven days on the post-partum ward with their families. While this may seem like a long time, it is less than half of the average 15-day stay when babies are admitted to a special care unit.
Provided a mother is HIV-negative, the benefits of breastfeeding may go well beyond the bonding and closeness associated between mother and newborn. As most of these women continue to use a substance to ease their own withdrawal or pain, the small quantities of opioid that enter the breastmilk are in turn passed on to the newborn, which helps ease them through this transitional period in their life.
As the saying goes, sometimes less is more. In the case of caring for newborns exposed to opioids in pregnancy, getting back to nature and promoting skin-to-skin care and breastfeeding is just what this doctor ordered.
What is old is new again as the saying goes. I continue to hope that at some point in my lifetime a “cure” will be found for BPD and is likely to centre around preventing the disease from occurring. Will it be the artificial placenta that will allow this feat to be accomplished or something else? Until that day we unfortunately are stuck with having to treat the condition once it is developing and hope that we can minimize the damage. When one thinks of treating BPD we typically think of postnatal steroids. Although the risk of adverse neurodevelopmental outcome is reduced with more modern approaches to use, such as with the DART protocol,most practitioners would prefer to avoid using them at all if possible. We know from previous research that a significant contributor to the development of BPD is inflammation. As science advanced, the specific culprits for this inflammatory cascade were identified and leukotrienes in particular were identified in tracheal lavage fluid from infants with severe lung disease. The question then arises as to whether or not one could ameliorate the risk of severe lung disease by halting at least a component of the inflammatory cascade leading to lung damage.
In our unit, we have tried using the drug monteleukast, an inhibitor of leukotrienes in several patients. With a small sample it is difficult to determine exactly whether this has had the desired effect but in general has been utilized when “all hope is lost”. The patient has severe disease already and is stuck on high frequency ventilation and may have already had a trial of postnatal steroids. It really is surprising that with the identification of leukotriene involvement over twenty years ago it took a team in 2014 to publish the only clinical paper on this topic. A German team published Leukotriene receptor blockade as a life-saving treatment in severe bronchopulmonary dysplasia.in 2014 and to date as far as I can see remains the only paper using this strategy. Given that we are all looking for ways to reduce BPD and this is the only such paper out there I thought you might want to see what they found. Would this be worth trying in your own unit? Well, read on and see what you think!
Who was included?
This study had an unusual design that will no doubt make statistical purists cringe but here is what they did. The target population for the intervention were patients with “life threatening BPD”. That is, in the opinion of the attending Neonatologist the patient had a greater than 50% likelihood of dying and also had to meet the following criteria; born at < 32 weeks GA, <1500g and had to be ventilated at 28 days. The authors sought a blinded RCT design but the Research Ethics Board refused due to the risk of the drug being low and the patients having such a high likelihood of death. The argument in essence was if the patients were likely to die and this drug might benefit them it was unethical to deny them the drug. The authors attempted to enroll all eligible patients but wound up with 11 treated and 11 controls. The controls were patients either with a contraindication to the drug or were parents who consented to be included in the study as controls but didn’t want the drug. Therapy was started for all between 28 – 45 days of age and continued for a wide range of durations (111+/-53 days in the study group). Lastly, the authors derived a score of illness severity that was used empirically:
PSC = FiO2 X support + medications
– support was equal to 2.5 for a ventilator. 1.5 for CPAP and 1 for nasal cannulae or an oxygen hood
– medications were equal to 0.2 for steroids, 0.1 for diruetics or inhaled steroids, 0.05 for methylxanthines or intermittent diruetics.
Did it make a difference?
The study was very small and each patient who received the medication was matched with one that did not receive treatment. Matching was based on GA, BW and the PSC with matching done less than 48 hours after enrollment in an attempt to match the severity of illness most importantly.
First off survival in the groups were notably different. A marked improvement in outcome was noted in the two groups. Of the deaths in the control group, the causes were all pulmonary and cardiac failure, although three patients died with a diagnosis of systemic inflammatory response syndrome. That is quite interesting given that monteleukast is an anti-inflammatory medication and none of the patients in the treatment arm experienced this diagnosis.
The second point of interest is the trend in the illness severity score over time. The time points in the figure are time 1 (start of study), time 2 (4 weeks of treatment), time 3 (end of treatment). These patients improved much more over time than the ones who did not receive treatment.
The Grain of Salt
As exciting as the results are, we need to acknowledge a couple things. The study is small and with that the risk of the results appearing to be real but in actual fact there being no effect is not minimal. As the authors knew who was receiving monteleukast it is possible that they treated the kids differently in the unit. If you believed that the medication would work or moreover wanted it to work, did you pay more attention on rounds and during a 24 hour period to those infants? Did the babies get more blood gases and tighter control of ventilation with less damage to the lungs over time? There are many reasons why these patients could have been different including earlier attempts to extubate. The fact is though the PSC scores do show that the babies indeed improved more over time so I wouldn’t write it off entirely that they did in fact benefit. The diagnosis of SIRS is a tough one to make in a newborn and I worry a little that knowing the babies didn’t receive an anti-inflammatory drug they were “given” that diagnosis.
Would I use it in spite of these faults? Yes. We have used it in such cases but I can’t say for sure that it has worked. If it does, the effect is not immediate and we are left once we start it not knowing how long to treat. As the authors here say though, the therapeutic risk is low with a possibly large benefit. I doubt it is harmful so the question we are left asking is whether it is right for you to try in your unit? As always perhaps a larger study will be done to look at this again with a blinded RCT structure as the believers won’t show up I suspect without one!
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.
Pediatrix medical group that you may well be familiar with has a lot of data that can be mined from the hospitals in their network. When it comes to buprenorphine there is a lot of data to look at. In this case the question posed by VN Tolia et al in thier paper Antenatal methadone vs buprenorphine exposure and length of hospital stay in infants admitted to the intensive care unit with neonatal abstinence syndrome was whether there is a difference in infants born to mothers who have been exposed to methadone vs burprenorphine. Specifically they chose to use length of stay as the primary outcome in a retrospective review of 3364 infants admitted for management of NAS. Of these infants, 2202 (65%) were exposed to methadone and 1162 (34%) to buprenorphine. Before we get into what the results actually were it is important to highlight what this study will not tell us. By looking only at admissions for NAS we do not know whether the use of buprenorphine in mothers actually reduced admission for NAS so we are only speaking of the babies who were afflicted with NAS.
When looking at the two groups, the median length of stay was 24 days for the methadone group and 21 for the buprenorphine which was found to be significantly different. In the secondary analysis another interesting finding (at least to me) was noted. When looking at the percentage of babies with a length of stay > 30 days the difference was significant at 34% vs 22% for buprenorphine. The authors here did a good job of doing their best to control for factors which could have influenced the results as they did a regression analysis to determine whether other factors such as gestational age, sex, type of treatment provided etc would explain the shortened length of stay and they found that it remained significant controlling for a wide variety of factors.
Is three days worth it?
It would be tempting to look at the 3 day median difference and shrug it off as no big deal. Remember though that we are in an epidemic are we not? What the study does not account for as well are the number of babies who could have been managed in a postpartum ward and also had a shortened length of stay. Let’s look at a city though where about 100 babies are admitted a year with NAS. A three day reduction in length of stay would translate into 300 patient days per year. By simply changing the medication a woman is being treated with in pregnancy from methadone to buprenorphine we could save almost one NICU bed for the whole year. That is nothing to sneeze at! Moreover if the reduction in admission rates are also true another one, two or more beds per year could be spared depending on the effectiveness of the drug.
In the last post that spoke of using buprenorphine to treat NAS in babies I was concerned about the alcohol content of the syrup for administration in babies. Here we are talking about treating women rather than babies so this is not a concern (plus they would not be taking the pediatric suspension). I see little downside to using buprenorphine over methadone so the real question is how do we get the care providers for the mothers to make the switch? I have a feeling that is coming sooner rather than later.
If you work in Neonatology then chances are you have ordered or assisted with obtaining many chest x-rays in your time. If you look at home many chest x-rays some of our patients get, especially the ones who are with us the longest it can be in the hundreds. I am happy to say the tide though is changing as we move more and more to using other imaging modalities such as ultrasound to replace some instances in which we would have ordered a chest x-ray. This has been covered before on this site a few times; see Point of Care Ultrasound in the NICU, Reducing Radiation Exposure in Neonates: Replacing Radiographs With Bedside Ultrasound. and Point of Care Ultrasound: Changing Practice For The Better in NICU.This post though is about something altogether different.
If you do a test then know what you will do with the result before you order it.
If there is one thing I tend to harp on with students it is to think about every test you do before you order it. If the result is positive how will this help you and if negative what does it tell you as well. In essence the question is how will this change your current management. If you really can’t think of a good answer to that question then perhaps you should spare the infant the poke or radiation exposure depending on what is being investigated. When it comes to the baby born before 30 weeks these infants are the ones with the highest risk of developing chronic lung disease. So many x-rays are done through their course in hospital but usually in response to an event such as an increase in oxygen requirements or a new tube with a position that needs to be identified. This is all reactionary but what if you could do one x-ray and take action based on the result in a prospective fashion?
In this study they looked retrospectively at 336 preterm infants weighing less than 1500g and less than 32 weeks at birth. Armed with the knowledge that many infants who have an early abnormal x-ray early in life who go on to develop BPD, this group decided to test the hypothesis that an x-ray demonstrating a pneumonia like pattern at day 7 of life predicts development of BPD. The patterns they were looking at are demonstrated in this figure from the paper. Essentially what the authors noted was that having the worst pattern of the lot predicted the development of later BPD. The odds ratio was 4.0 with a confidence interval of 1.1 – 14.4 for this marker of BPD. Moreover, birthweight below 1000g, gestational age < 28 weeks and need for invasive ventilation at 7 days were also linked to the development of the interstitial pneumonia pattern.
What do we do with such information?
I suppose the paper tells us something that we have really already known for awhile. Bad lungs early on predict bad lungs at a later date and in particular at 36 weeks giving a diagnosis of BPD. What this study adds if anything is that one can tell quite early whether they are destined to develop this condition or not. The issue then is what to do with such information. The authors suggest that by knowing the x-ray findings this early we can do something about it to perhaps modify the course. What exactly is that though? I guess it is possible that we can use steroids postnatally in this cohort and target such infants as this. I am not sure how far ahead this would get us though as if I had to guess I would say that these are the same infants that more often than not are current recipients of dexamethasone.
Would another dose of surfactant help? The evidence for late surfactant isn’t so hot itself so that isn’t likely to offer much in the way of benefit either.
In the end the truth is I am not sure if knowing concretely that a patient will develop BPD really offers much in the way of options to modify the outcome at this point. Having said that the future may well bring the use of stem cells for the treatment of BPD and that is where I think such information might truly be helpful. Perhaps a screening x-ray at 7 days might help us choose in the future which babies should receive stem cell therapy (should it be proven to work) and which should not. I am proud to say I had a chance to work with a pioneer in this field of research who may one day cure BPD. Dr. Thebaud has written many papers of the subject and if you are looking for recent review here is one Stem cell biology and regenerative medicine for neonatal lung diseases.Do I think that this one paper is going to help us eradicate BPD? I do not but one day this strategy in combination with work such as Dr. Thebaud is doing may lead us to talk about BPD at some point using phrases like “remember when we used to see bad BPD”. One can only hope.
It has been over two years since I have written on this subject and it continues to be something that I get excited about whenever a publication comes my way on the topic. The last time I looked at this topic it was after the publication of a randomized trial comparing in which one arm was provided automated FiO2 adjustments while on ventilatory support and the other by manual change. Automated adjustments of FiO2. Ready for prime time? In this post I concluded that the technology was promising but like many new strategies needed to be proven in the real world. The study that the post was based on examined a 24 hour period and while the results were indeed impressive it left one wondering whether longer periods of use would demonstrate the same results. Moreover, one also has to be wary of the Hawthorne Effect whereby the results during a study may be improved simply by being part of a study.
The Real World Demonstration
So the same group decided to look at this again but in this case did a before and after comparison. The study looked at a group of preterm infants under 30 weeks gestational age born from May – August 2015 and compared them to August to January 2016. The change in practice with the implementation of the CLiO2 system with the Avea ventilator occurred in August which allowed two groups to be looked at over a relatively short period of time with staff that would have seen little change before and after. The study in question is by Van Zanten HA The effect of implementing an automated oxygen control on oxygen saturation in preterm infants. For the study the target range of FiO2 for both time periods was 90 – 95% and the primary outcome was the percentage of time spent in this range. Secondary outcomes included time with FiO2 at > 95% (Hyperoxemia) and < 90, <85 and < 80% (hypoxemia). Data were collected when infants received respiratory support by the AVEA and onlyincluded for analysis when supplemental oxygen was given, until the infants reached a GA of 32 weeks
As you might expect since a computer was controlling the FiO2 using a feedback loop from the saturation monitor it would be a little more accurate and immediate in manipulating FiO2 than a bedside nurse who has many other tasks to manage during the care of an infant. As such the median saturation was right in the middle of the range at 93% when automated and 94% when manual control was used. Not much difference there but as was seen in the shorter 24 hour study, the distribution around the median was tighter with automation. Specifically with respect to ranges, hyperoxemia and hypoxemia the following was noted (first number is manual and second comparison automated in each case).
Time spent in target range: 48.4 (41.5–56.4)% vs 61.9 (48.5–72.3)%; p<0.01
Hyperoxemia >95%: 41.9 (30.6–49.4)% vs 19.3 (11.5–24.5)%; p<0.001
< 90%: 8.6 (7.2–11.7)% vs 15.1 (14.0–21.1)%;p<0.0001
< 85%: 2.7 (1.4–4.0)% vs 3.2 (1.8–5.1)%; ns
Hypoxemia < 80%: 1.1 (0.4–1.7)% vs 0.9 (0.5–2.1)%; ns
What does it all mean?
I find it quite interesting that while hyperoxemia is reduced, the incidence of saturations under 90% is increased with automation. I suspect the answer to this lies in the algorithmic control of the FiO2. With manual control the person at the bedside may turn up a patient (and leave them there a little while) who in particular has quite labile saturations which might explain the tendency towards higher oxygen saturations. This would have the effect of shifting the curve upwards and likely explains in part why the oxygen saturation median is slightly higher with manual control. With the algorithm in the CLiO2 there is likely a tendency to respond more gradually to changes in oxygen saturation so as not to overshoot and hyperoxygenate the patient. For a patient with labile oxygen saturations this would have a similar effect on the bottom end of the range such that patients might be expected to drift a little lower then the target of 90% as the automation corrects for the downward trend. This is supported by the fact that when you look at what is causing the increase in percentage of time below 90% it really is the category of 85-89%.
Is this safe? There will no doubt be people reading this that see the last line and immediately have flashbacks to the SUPPORT trial which created a great deal of stress in the scientific community when the patients in the 85-89% arm of the trial experienced higher than expected mortality. It remains unclear what the cause of this increased mortality was and in truth in our own unit we accept 88 – 92% as an acceptable range. I have no doubt there are units that in an attempt to lessen the rate of ROP may allow saturations to drop as low as 85% so I continue to think this strategy of using automation is a viable one.
For now the issue is one of a ventilator that is capable of doing this. If not for the ventilated patient at least for patients on CPAP. In our centre we don’t use the Avea model so that system is out. With the system we use for ventilation there is also no option. We are anxiously awaiting the availability of an automated system for our CPAP device. I hope to be able to share our own experience positively when that comes to the market. From my standpoint there is enough to do at the bedside. Having a reliable system to control the FiO2 and minimize oxidative stress is something that may make a real difference for the babies we care for and is something I am eager to see.