VANCOUVER, Washington — Worldwide, preterm birth poses risks to millions of babies each year. Premature babies, who are born after less than 37 weeks of gestation, are at a greater risk of dying during infancy or maintaining mild to severe health problems throughout life. Breathing problems, cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities are a few among many issues caused by premature birth, says The March of Dimes.
While the majority of preterm births are spontaneous, some are caused by poor prenatal health, infections and chronic conditions faced by the mother. The World Health Organization reports that in low-income countries, 12 percent of babies are born prematurely, while only nine percent of babies are born prematurely in developed countries.
The vast majority of preterm births take place in Africa and Asia. The two continents account for 85 percent of premature births worldwide, which the WHO attributes to the higher number of deliveries. Due to a lack of intensive care resources, even premature infants that are only marginally underweight have slight chance of survival.
The WHO attributes differing risk factors to the contrast in the number of premature births in the developed world versus the developing world. In North America, women have begun having children later in life, which leads to complications. However, in Africa, infections and a dearth in necessary medications heightens the rate of premature births.
Identifying risk factors helps control the rate of premature births, to an extent. By taking extra precautions and being educated on potential health problems, older women in the United States are capable of having healthy babies. However, while risk factors have been identified for mothers in developing countries, the rate of premature births and subsequent complications remains high because of a lack of monetary and social resources to implement change.
More than 75 percent of premature babies can be saved, says the WHO. This can be achieved through more attentive prenatal care, as well as through the provision of antibiotics for infants. These precautions are especially important in developing countries, where newborn survival is already lower.
Poorly maintained healthcare systems account for a large number of unnecessary newborn deaths in developing countries. In Ghana, a set of twins born at 30 weeks was denied intensive care, says The Guardian. Resources like intensive care, which are available at most hospitals in the United States, are rationed in Ghana.
Some methods of care have proven to be both inexpensive and effective. Kangaroo mother care, which involves the baby being placed directly on the mother’s chest and frequently breastfed, has been shown to be even more effective than placing the child in an incubator.
However, some cheap and useful methods have not made their way to developing countries yet. Steroid shots, which are injected into the mother during premature labor, help the baby’s lungs develop so that breathing is possible at birth. These shots are only $1, yet only 10 percent of premature babies in developing countries receive this treatment. Additionally, basic medical supplies like antiseptic and antibiotics are unavailable.
Worldwide the number of premature births is far too high. By implementing cost-effective and successful methods of both prenatal care and pre-term infant care, millions of infants can be saved from unnecessary death.
– Bridget Tobin
Sources: WHO 1, WHO 2, The Guardian, March of Dimes