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Is open thoracotomy still a good treatment option for the management of empyema in children?

BACKGROUND: The incidence of pediatric postpneumonic empyema increases, and there is little consensus on its management. Open thoracotomy has been linked with high morbidity and prolonged hospitalization. Our aim was to review the outcome after open thoracotomy and to provide a set of data for comparison with other treatment modalities.

METHODS: Forty-four children (median age, 8 years, 2 months to 16 years) undergoing surgery for postpneumonic empyema between 1993 and 2002 in our unit were studied.

RESULTS: The median time from onset of symptoms to admission in a pediatric unit was 8 days (range, 2 to 63 days), the median time from pediatric admission to surgical referral was 3 days (range, 0 to 19 days), and the median time from surgical admission to thoracotomy was 1 day (range, 0 to 2 days). Eight children had a chest drain before surgical admission. Six patients, who were referred late (19 to 69 days), had lung abscesses. A limited muscle sparing thoracotomy (44 patients), formal decortication (36 patients), lung debridement (5 patients), and lobectomy (1 patient) were performed. After thoracotomy, median time to apyrexia was 1 day (range, 0 to 27 days) and drain removal was 3 days (range, 1 to 16 days). A pathogen was isolated in 21 patients. There were no deaths. Four children with abscesses remained septic and had lobectomies (2 patients) and debridements (2 patients). The median postoperative hospital stay was 5 to 53 days. One child had postpneumonic empyema develop and had decortication 3 months postoperatively. At follow-up, all children were doing well and had satisfactory radiographs. The Kaplan-Meier 5-year and 10-year survival rate, freedom from any reoperation, and freedom from hospital readmission were 100%, 87%, and 98%, respectively.

CONCLUSIONS: Open thoracotomy remains an excellent option for management of stage II-III empyema in children. When open thoracotomy is performed in a timely manner there is low morbidity and it provides rapid resolution of symptoms with a short hospital stay. However, delayed referrals may result in advanced pulmonary sepsis and a protracted clinical course. The late results are encouraging. Use of thoracoscopy or fibrinolysis should be considered on the basis of their own merit, not on the assumption of probable adverse outcomes after thoracotomy.

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