Respiratory distress in premature babies

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Some research falls in between good and bad – it is plainly unnecessary. An example of such research concerns premature babies.

When babies are born prematurely their lungs may be underdeveloped, with the risk of life-threatening complications such as respiratory distress syndrome.

By the early 1980s there was overwhelming evidence that giving a steroid drug to pregnant women at risk of giving birth prematurely reduced the frequency of respiratory distress syndrome and death in newborn babies. Yet over the ensuing decade trials continued to be done in which steroids were compared with a placebo or no treatment.

If the results of earlier trials had been reviewed systematically and combined using meta-analysis, it is unlikely that many of the later trials would have been started – the collective evidence would have shown that there was simply no need.

These unnecessary studies therefore denied effective treatment to half the participants in these trials.