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Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2008 Jul 16;(3):CD001340. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD001340.pub2.

Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation for severe respiratory failure in newborn infants.

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School of Medicine, Health Policy and Practice, University of East Anglia, Norwich, Norfolk, UK, NR4 7TJ.



Neonatal extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) is a complex procedure of life support used in severe but potentially reversible respiratory failure in term infants. Although the number of babies eligible for ECMO is small and the use of ECMO invasive and potentially expensive, its benefits may be high.


To determine whether ECMO used for neonatal infants with severe respiratory failure is clinically and cost effective compared to conventional ventilatory support.


The Cochrane Neonatal Group Specialised Register, the Cochrane Controlled Trials Register, and MEDLINE were searched for 1974 to 2007.


All randomised trials comparing neonatal ECMO to conventional ventilatory support.


The authors independently evaluated the trials for methodological quality and appropriateness for inclusion in the Review (without consideration of their results) and independently extracted the data.


The four trials (three USA and one UK) recruited clinically similar groups of babies. Two trials excluded infants with congenital diaphragmatic hernias. In two trials, transfer for ECMO implied transport over long distances. Two trials had follow-up information. One study included economic evaluation. The three USA trials had very small numbers of patients. Two trials used conventional randomisation with low potential for bias. Two used less usual designs, which led to difficulties in their interpretation. All four trials showed strong benefit of ECMO on mortality (typical RR 0.44; 95% CI 0.31 to 0.61), especially for babies without congenital diaphragmatic hernia (typical RR 0.33, 95% CI 0.21 to 0.53). The UK trial provided follow up information about death or severe disability, and cost-effectiveness, and showed benefit of ECMO at one year (RR 0.56, 95% CI 0.40 to 0.78), four years (RR 0.62, 95% CI 0.45 to 0.86), and seven years (RR 0.64, 95% CI 0.47 to 0.86). Overall nearly half of the children recruited had died or were severely disabled by seven years of age, reflecting the severity of their underlying conditions. A policy of ECMO is as cost-effective as other intensive care technologies in common use.


A policy of using ECMO in mature infants with severe but potentially reversible respiratory failure results in significantly improved survival without increased risk of severe disability. The benefit of ECMO for babies with diaphragmatic hernia is unclear. Further studies are needed to consider the optimal timing for introducing ECMO; to identify which infants are most likely to benefit; and to address the implications of neonatal ECMO during later childhood and adult life.

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