Helping little lungs breathe easier

September 4, 2009 3:39:54 PM PDT
Almost half a million babies in the United States are born prematurely every year and the cost of caring for them can reach into the millions of dollars. Now a tool used to help adults with sleep apnea is helping preemies breathe easier. Some doctors say the low-cost solution may be the best weapon in the fight for survival. It has helped twins like Dallon and Damon

At birth they were barely hanging on.

"There were so many risks, and we had no clue," Martina McCloud said..

The twins surprised and scared mom by arriving almost three months too soon. They weighed about as much as a football.

"It could go hour by hour or day by day, but you just gotta stick in there," McCloud said.

Typically, tubes help the sickest babies breathe. Ventilators keep them alive, but in 20 to 50 percent of cases, the pressure damages their lungs.

"Every baby that has respiratory problems gets put on mechanical ventilation," said Dr. Mario Rojas, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. "I think that we're doing more damage at this point with that technology than benefit."

At Vanderbilt, instead of ventilators, doctors use a low-tech machine many adults use for sleep apnea. The CPAP machine covers the nose, not the mouth and provides a continuous flow of air to prevent little lungs from collapsing.

In a study, 74 percent of preemies only required a CPAP machine to breathe. The less-invasive approach reduced the rate of chronic lung disease by 10 percent and cut costs.

"On average, a ventilator could cost between $27,000 and $36,000," Dr. Rojas said. "A system like CPAP, even done in a simple way, could cost less than $500."

Without the ventilator attached, McCloud is able to hold and rock her babies.

"He has a big attitude and a little body," McCloud said.

Proving less may be more when it comes to caring for the tiniest survivors.

Mechanical ventilation is still used as a last resort for the sickest preemies. Dr. Rojas is using this study to promote the use of CPAP machines in developing countries, where nearly 4 million babies die every year because of respiratory problems.

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