Infection in the prediction and antibiotics in the prevention of spontaneous preterm labour and preterm birth


Correspondence: Dr R. Lamont, Northwick Park & St Mark's NHS Trust, Watford Road, Harrow, HA1 3UJ, UK.


The association between infection and spontaneous preterm labour is now well established and thought to be responsible for preterm birth in up to 40% of cases. Preterm labour that is due to infection is refractory to the use of tocolytic agents. So the knowledge that infection may be the cause is unhelpful once a woman is admitted in spontaneous preterm labour, since by that time there may be irreversible changes in the uterine cervix, which renders futile those attempts to inhibit the process. It would be much more logical to use the association between infection and spontaneous preterm labour to identify a group of women at risk and to intervene using antibiotic prophylaxis. It is important to record, that the earlier in gestation at which abnormal genital tract colonisation is detected, the greater is the risk of an adverse outcome. For example, abnormal genital tract flora at 26–32 weeks gestation is associated with preterm birth with an odds ratio (OR) of 1.4 to 2, whereas abnormal genital tract flora at 7–16 weeks gestation carries an OR of 5 to 7.5. Intervention studies have used different antibiotics in different dosage regimes by different routes of administration to patients of differing risks at different gestational ages. Not surprisingly this has led to differing results. If intervention is to be successful, the antibiotics chosen should be active against bacterial vaginosis or bacterial vaginosis-related organisms and should be used early in pregnancy in those women with the greatest degree of abnormal genital tract flora. While there is logic in using intravaginal antibiotics to deliver a heavy antibiotic load to the vagina where heavy abnormal colonisation exists, there is also logic in considering systemic antibiotics to eradicate those organisms, which have already gained access to the decidua. It may be that the greatest chance of benefit would exist if both routes of administration were combined. Yet no study has evaluated the combination of both intravaginal and systemic antibiotics to eradicate abnormal genital tract flora for the prevention of preterm birth.