HINCHINGBROOKE Hospital’s special care baby unit, which looks after hundreds of sick and premature babies every year, looks set to be downgraded.

Currently, the hospital's SCBU is classified by the NHS as a 'local neonatal unit' (LNU), where the majority of babies over 27 weeks - full gestation term is 39 weeks - in the catchment area receive full care, including short periods of intensive care. It also provides high dependency care and short periods of intensive care for babies from a wider area.

Babies who need complex or longer-term intensive care are transferred to neonatal intensive care units, such as those at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge and the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital.

But the NHS is now saying there are not enough very premature babies in Hinchingbrooke's catchment for the unit to reach the minimum standard to be an LNU, so it has problems recruiting and retaining specialised neonatal staff.

The plan is to downgrade it to become a 'local special care unit' to provide short-term stabilisation intensive care, some high-dependency care and special care. It must also be able to provide stabilisation and resuscitation facilities for the care of unexpectedly sick babies.

According to a paper to Cambridgeshire County Council's health scrutiny committee, the change would in practice affect only babies born after 28 weeks but before 31 weeks' gestation, who would be transferred to Cambridge, Peterborough, or possibly Ipswich or King's Lynn.

"Statistical returns indicate that in 2009/10 this change would have affected 14 babies born at Hinchingbrooke," according to the council's scrutiny and improvement officer Jane Belman.

Babies born later than 30 weeks would generally continue to be cared for at Hinchingbrooke's SCBU.

Cambridgeshire Community Services, the NHS body that runs the SCBU at Hinchingbrooke, did not recognise the '14 babies' figure, but John Peberdy, assistant director, children's services, said the organisation had taken part in a review commissioned by the East of England Specialised Commissioning Group, which represents the 13 primary care trusts in the region, to look at the provision of neonatal and special care for babies in the area who are premature or unwell.

"The review recommends that the special care baby unit at Hinchingbrooke, run by Cambridgeshire Community Services NHS Trust, remains a special care unit, but the most ill babies will be transferred to the neonatal intensive care unit at Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge.

"No formal decision has yet been made on these proposals," he stressed. "Cambridgeshire Community Services NHS Trust is continuing to work with the East of England Specialised Commissioning Group to support its on-going review and ensure that the most vulnerable babies continue to get the specialist care they need."