Breastfeeding can prevent infections that lead to pneumonia in babies, UHL research says

Prof Roy Philip, Consultant Neonatologist and Paediatrician at University Maternity Hospital Limerick.

BREASTFEEDING can stop babies getting a virus that can result in pneumonia, according to research from a University of Limerick Hospital consultant.

There is no vaccine available for RSV-associated acute lower respiratory infections (ALRIs) for infants and children, nor is there effective or standardised treatment currently available.

Costly immunoprophylaxis-based prevention, delivered via monthly injections, is available only for high-risk infants.

RSV is a contagious virus that in most babies infects the upper respiratory tract, with symptoms such as mild cough, cold, or runny nose.

In about one in four babies, the virus penetrates deep into the lungs and causes bronchiolitis or pneumonia, acute lower respiratory infections (ALRI) that lead in some cases to hospitalisation.

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UL Hospitals Group consultant neonatologist Prof Roy K Philip was to the fore of a major review of two decades worth of international research that suggests breastfeeding offers protection to infants from the most severe respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). 

The RSV-associated study was one of two pieces of research emerging from University Maternity Hospital Limerick (UMHL) that have gained international attention in the year to date, not just in academic journals but also in the pages of The New York Times.

Prof Philip and colleagues Gabriela M Mineva, Helen Purtill, and Prof Colum P Dunne recently published the report of their findings in the BMJ Global Health medical journal. 

The researchers contend their findings point to the need for global promotion of breastfeeding as an adjunct primary preventative measure against RSV illnesses.

Prof Philip and colleagues’ systematic review analysed English language research from 2000 to 2021 into exclusively or partially breastfed infants of under 12 months who developed RSV-associated ALRI.

More than 1,368 studies were screened, and the final analysis drew from research undertaken in 12 countries, including a total of 16,787 infants from 31 countries.

Findings from the review of the two-decades of international research indicate that exclusive breastfeeding for infants 4-6 months and older significantly lowered hospitalisation, length of stay, supplemental oxygen demand, and admission to intensive care units.

Research also found that non-breastfeeding practices pose a significant risk for severe RSV-associated ALRI and hospitalisation

The professor’s study further points out that RSV infections that were “elbowed out” by SARS-CoV-2 during the initial phases of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown resurfaced with vigour last winter.

“Breastfeeding is the most environmentally-‘green’ feeding strategy. And with various respiratory infections now resurgent as societies re-emerge from lengthy pandemic lockdowns, it becomes something even more effectively attuned to the world we now live in, and can play a key part in reducing winter demand on acute hospital services caused by seasonal waves of respiratory illness,” the Professor said.