Use the Stool! Fecal Microbiota Transplants Help Kids With Diarrheal Infection

Marcus A. Banks

November 20, 2023

Fecal transplants are safe and effective treatments for recurrent Clostridioides difficile infections in children, according to a clinical report released Monday by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

However, fecal microbiota transplants (FMTs) should not be used to treat other gastrointestinal ailments such as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis because scientific evidence falls short on effectiveness in treating these conditions, the group said.

C difficile infections (CDIs) are major contributors to hospital-associated diarrhea and diarrhea caused by antibiotics. An FMT involves introducing the feces of a healthy person into the gastrointestinal tract, usually through a nasogastric tube but sometimes in capsules containing healthy stool. Serious adverse reactions associated with an FMT, such as hospitalization, are rare, occurring in roughly 2% of cases, the AAP said.

An FMT, "does have a place for treatment of recurrent CDIs in children," said Maria Oliva-Hemker, MD, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore and the lead author of the report, which was published in the December 2023 volume of Pediatrics.

The AAP strongly encourages people not to perform an FMT at home, although caregivers may be tempted due to a lack of medical facilities located nearby to deliver this care.

"People might see a video on YouTube and think they can do this themselves," Oliva-Hemker said.

An FMT requires screening of donors for any infections, which involves administering questionnaires and analyzing donor blood and stool, which are tasks better suited for medical facilities than for a living room.

No controlled or prospective clinical trials on the efficacy of FMT for children exist, according to the AAP. But a retrospective study published in 2020 showed that one or two courses of FMT prevented CDI recurrence in children 87% of the time. Researchers defined the eradication of CDIs as no recurrence for at least 2 months after an FMT and noted the success rates in children were comparable to those reported in adults. Unlike pediatric data, adult data come from a randomized clinical trial.

"Sometimes, kids are the last people to be enrolled in these trials," said Maribeth Nicholson, MD, MPH, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, an author of the 2020 study. 

Nicholson, who was not involved in the AAP report, said that the retrospective data are strong enough to justify using FMT to eradicate CDIs in children. But researchers are unclear about the biologic mechanisms that make FMTs work. 

Nicholson said that many therapeutics meant to produce a healthier microbiome are being studied in clinical trials. Any clinical trials of such products should include children, Nicholson said. A child's gastrointestinal microbiome is actively developing, Nicholson added, compared with the relatively stable microbiome of an adult. 

"When we think about the microbiome it makes sense to target kids, because they're more apt to respond to these therapies. I worry that somebody will say 'this doesn't work in adults,' and it just stops there," Nicholson said. 

Though the AAP said that the benefits of FMT for treating CDIs are clear, the data available for treating other conditions such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease are less convincing. Any child receiving an FMT for these ailments should only do so as part of a clinical trial, the group said.

The AAP report endorses a joint position paper, published in 2019, about the benefits of FMTs for CDIs from North American and European pediatric gastroenterology societies. Nicholson was an author of this joint statement and hopes that the AAP report raises further awareness among pediatricians that FMTs are a safe and effective treatment for recurrent CDIs.

"This is something that maybe is not as discussed in pediatric circles. Kids need FMTs sometimes," Nicholson said.

Oliva-Hemker and Nicholson report no relevant financial relationships.

Marcus A. Banks, MA, is a journalist based in New York City who covers health news with a focus on new cancer research. His work appears in Medscape, Cancer Today, The Scientist, Gastroenterology & Endoscopy News, Slate, TCTMD, and Spectrum.


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