Long term impact of pre-incision antibiotics on children born by caesarean section: a longitudinal study based on UK electronic health records

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Background: Since changes in the national guidance in 2011, prophylactic antibiotics for women undergoing caesarean section are recommended prior to skin incision, rather than after the baby’s umbilical cord has been clamped. Evidence from randomised controlled trials conducted outside the UK has shown that this reduces maternal infectious morbidity; however, the prophylactic antibiotics also cross the placenta, meaning that babies are exposed to them around the time of birth. Antibiotics are known to affect the gut microbiota of the babies, but the long-term effects of exposure to high-dose broad-spectrum antibiotics around the time of birth on allergy and immune-related diseases are unknown.

Objectives: We aimed to examine whether or not in-utero exposure to antibiotics immediately prior to birth compared with no pre-incisional antibiotic exposure increases the risk of (1) asthma and (2) eczema in children born by caesarean section.

Design: This was a controlled interrupted time series study.

Setting: The study took place in primary and secondary care.

Participants: Children born in the UK during 2006–18 delivered by caesarean section were compared with a control cohort delivered vaginally.

Interventions: In-utero exposure to antibiotics immediately prior to birth.

Main outcome measures: Asthma and eczema in children in the first 5 years of life. Additional secondary outcomes, including other allergy-related conditions, autoimmune diseases, infections, other immune system-related diseases and neurodevelopmental conditions, were also assessed.

Data sources: The Health Improvement Network (THIN) and the Clinical Practice Research Datalink (CPRD) primary care databases and the Hospital Episode Statistics (HES) database. Previously published linkage strategies were adapted to link anonymised data on mothers and babies in these databases. Duplicate practices contributing to both THIN and the CPRD databases were removed to create a THIN–CPRD data set.

Results: In the THIN–CPRD and HES data sets, records of 515,945 and 3,945,351 mother–baby pairs were analysed, respectively. The risk of asthma was not significantly higher in children born by caesarean section exposed to pre-incision antibiotics than in children whose mothers received post-cord clamping antibiotics, with an incidence rate ratio of 0.91 (95% confidence interval 0.78 to 1.05) for diagnosis of asthma in primary care and an incidence rate ratio of 1.05 (95% confidence interval 0.99 to 1.11) for asthma resulting in a hospital admission. We also did not find an increased risk of eczema, with an incidence rate ratio of 0.98 (95% confidence interval 0.94 to1.03) and an incidence rate ratio of 0.96 (95% confidence interval 0.71 to 1.29) for diagnosis in primary care and hospital admissions, respectively.

Limitations: It was not possible to ascertain the exposure to pre-incision antibiotics at an individual level. The maximum follow-up of children was 5 years.

Conclusions: There was no evidence that the policy change from post-cord clamping to pre-incision prophylactic antibiotics for caesarean sections during 2006–18 had an impact on the incidence of asthma and eczema in early childhood in the UK.

Future work: There is a need for further research to investigate if pre-incision antibiotics have any impact on developing asthma and other allergy and immune-related conditions in older children.

Study registration: This study is registered as researchregistry3736.

Funding: This project was funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Health Technology Assessment programme and will be published in full in Health Technology Assessment; Vol. 26, No. 30. See the NIHR Journals Library website for further project information.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-192
Number of pages192
JournalHealth Technology Assessment
Issue number30
Publication statusPublished - 31 Jul 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Policy


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