Our results suggest that in general, cooling of neonates with HIE has a beneficial effect on the primary composite outcome of death or disability at 18–22 months. The similarity of outcomes between trials despite the heterogeneity related to various factors including methodology of cooling (head vs. body, devices, target temperatures, site of monitoring, duration of intervention etc.), patient characteristics (place of birth, temperature and age at enrolment etc.), and the definition and degree (moderate and/or severe) of neuro-developmental disability (Table 1) is reassuring for the generalisability of the findings. Differences in the behavior of the composite outcome vs. its individual components are an important consideration . The selection of death and neurodevelopmental disability as components of the prespecified primary composite outcome is justified. The frequency of the components of the primary composite outcome is significant and comparable, assuring that no individual component is driving it in any specific direction. The data show reasonably convincingly that the benefit for the primary composite outcome is significant and is probably a fair reflection of benefit for its individual components. Individual components of the primary composite outcome show significant benefits of cooling but have wide CIs suggesting that more data is needed to minimize the uncertainty. However, it is important to note that interpretation of CI is a personal and subjective issue. Overall, there seems to be reasonably good evidence of a real benefit of cooling on the primary composite outcome and its components.
The definition of disability in the whole body cooling trial by Shankaran et al is quite different from that in the selective head cooling trials by Gluckman et al and Gunn et al (moderate/severe vs. only severe disability). However the effect of this difference in definitions on the results of the meta-analysis is limited because the proportion of infants with moderate disability is low in all trials. Subgroup analysis seems to suggest that the results of the selective head cooling trials are not as convincing as those of the whole body cooling trials. However, there might be no clinically important difference between these cooling techniques for several reasons: Firstly, this subgroup analysis is clearly dominated by the two major trials Gluckman et al and Shankaran et al, and therefore of limited value. The overall trend for both cooling techniques is towards a benefit (Figure 1). Secondly, differences in the severity of neuronal injury may explain these findings considering the differences in the inclusion criteria of those two trials (Table 2). The proportion of neonates with very low Apgar scores, severe aEEG background activity and severe clinical encephalopathy was higher in the intervention group in Gluckman et al, possibly reducing the chances to demonstrate selective head cooling benefits. A significant reduction in death or major disability was however noted in the prespecified subgroup analysis of neonates with only moderate injury defined by aEEG criteria [10, 31]. Thirdly, palliation bias in the form of a higher rate of withdrawal of treatment (27 vs. 12) in the control group may also have played a role in the significant benefit reported in the whole body cooling trial by Shankaran et al . In addition, 41/106 neonates in the control group of Shankaran et al, at least once had a temperature > 38°C within the 72 hours of the intervention, which may have influenced for their outcome .
The frequency of sinus bradycardia following therapeutic hypothermia was significant. A borderline effect on thrombocytopenia was noted and there was a trend towards a higher risk of anemia, coagulopathy, and hypotension (Table 5). However, sinus bradycardia is a physiological response rather than a true adverse event and did not compromise perfusion, and thrombocytopenia was not reported as of clinical importance. The adverse events therefore may be outweighed by the potential benefits.
Given the overall encouraging results without significant adverse effects it is not surprising that some centers may now consider therapeutic hypothermia as a standard treatment for HIE . However, many experts including a commission of the American Academy of Pediatrics  have suggested that further research should continue and therapeutic hypothermia should not be offered outside RCTs. Their suggestions are based on heterogeneity as discussed above and the possibility that neurological outcomes at 18 to 22 months may not reflect the true long-term benefits [35, 36]. The rate of severe disability is very unlikely to change, however, more subtle neurodevelopmental problems that cannot be assessed at the age of 18 months may become apparent by school age . The unaddressed issues include the specific target population that is most likely to benefit, the most effective and safe method for cooling, the optimal age at onset and duration of cooling, and the field difficulties in applying any specific method for cooling, particularly for outborn neonates . In practice, hypothermia is quite frequent in asphyxiated neonates, whereas guidelines for rewarming are not standardised/uniform. The targets, methods as well as the speed of rewarming may influence the neuronal recovery/damage following HIE. This issue is especially important during transport of hypothermic neonates with HIE. The field difficulties have been addressed to some extent by Eicher et al who showed that it is feasible to cool outborn neonates with ice bags followed by cooling with a blanket on reaching the receiving hospital. This approach can help to reduce the time between birth asphyxia and initiation of cooling. Animal studies have clearly shown that there is a correlation between early onset of cooling and treatment effect .
Experts have advised that centers wishing to offer therapeutic hypothermia outside RCTs should adhere strictly to a trial protocol and have established the substantial resources required to cool neonates with HIE. The minimum resources include a transport team to retrieve neonates and start cooling before four to six hours of life and a multidisciplinary team for long-term neurodevelopmental follow-up .
At least three more RCTs of therapeutic hypothermia aiming at a combined total of over 650 neonates are currently in progress [38–40]. The long-term outcomes ≥ 18 months of age of the single trial with complete recruitment (according to the TOBY trial website) will not be ready for publication until end of 2008 at the earliest . Ideally it is preferable to include the long-term results of those ongoing studies in this systematic review to have definitive answers. However, those studies are not designed to answer all the unaddressed issues listed earlier, therefore waiting for their results is ethically complex. They may show beneficial effects of therapeutic hypothermia while narrowing the CI. In that case it is disturbing to think that while waiting for the CI to narrow the purists may have denied a beneficial intervention to neonates with HIE. Obviously ethics , resources, parents' wishes, and last but not the least, the anxiety related to future medicolegal challenges, will have to be balanced before deciding whether therapeutic hypothermia can be offered as a standard treatment for HIE. Continuing to participate in a trial of therapeutic hypothermia while offering it to neonates whose parents insist on it probably violates the principle of equipoise, the very justification for conducting a RCT.