Maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health

World Prematurity Day highlights effective, low-cost care

New commitments to address the problem

Preterm birth* is the world's largest killer of newborn babies, causing more than one million deaths each year, yet 75% could be saved without expensive, high technology care.

That's the primary message and motivating theme of World Prematurity Day, 17 November, a global effort to raise awareness of the deaths and disabilities due to prematurity and the simple, proven, cost-effective measures that could prevent them.

A baby's hand is held by an adult.
Save the children/C. Crowley

On World Prematurity Day, countries in nearly every part of the world will take action to raise awareness of what can be done to reduce preterm births and better care for babies born too soon.

Families affected by premature birth can share stories, photos, and videos, and identify their locations on an interactive world map on facebook.com/worldprematurityday. More than 700 000 visited this website in 2011.

"People think that preterm babies need intensive, high-tech care, but we have simple methods that really work and would save hundreds of thousands of lives," says Joy Lawn, M.D., Ph.D., of Save the Children, a neonatal physician.

12.6 million moderate to late preterm births

Babies born between 32 and less than 37 completed weeks of pregnancy make up 85% of the 15 million preterm babies born annually – 12.6 million.

“These babies are born too soon, but they are not born to die,” says Dr Lawn. “Their deaths are utterly preventable.”

“We know what it takes to address the challenge of prematurity and we are committed to bringing partners together behind proven, affordable solutions,” says UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who launched The Global Strategy for Women’s and Children's Health in 2010. The Global Strategy is supported by Every Woman Every Child, an umbrella movement that has already leveraged more than US$ 20 billion in new money and aims to save the lives of 16 million by 2015.

The countries with the greatest numbers of moderate to late preterm births annually are: India – 2 959 300; China – 981 050; Nigeria – 665 080; Pakistan – 633 640; Indonesia – 564 350; United States of America – 438 410; Bangladesh – 355 030; Philippines – 295 780; Democratic Republic of the Congo – 291 750; and Brazil – 233 320.

Essential newborn care

“Essential newborn care is especially important for babies born preterm,” said Elizabeth Mason, M.D., Director of WHO’s Department of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health. “This means keeping them warm, clean, and well-fed, and ensuring that babies who have difficulty breathing get immediate attention.”

Three low-cost interventions that are very effective, but are not commonly used, are:

  • Steroid injections. When given to mothers in preterm labour, dexamethosone, a steroid used to treat asthma, helps speed up the development of the baby’s lungs. At a cost of about US$1, two shots can stop premature babies from going into respiratory distress when they are born. This can prevent 400 000 deaths annually.
  • Kangaroo Mother Care. Using this technique, the tiny infant is held skin-to-skin on the mother's chest. This keeps the baby warm and facilitates breastfeeding. Keeping preterm babies warm is especially important because their tiny bodies lose heat rapidly, making them highly vulnerable to illness, infection and death. This could prevent 450 000 deaths annually.
  • In addition, basic antibiotics can save lives, such as amoxicillin to treat pneumonia and injection antibiotics to fight serious infections.

“Using an essential package of pregnancy, childbirth and postnatal care that includes these interventions will save more than three quarters of preterm babies without intensive care,” says Carole Presern, Ph.D., head of The Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health (PMNCH) and a midwife. “Most of these infants can grow up healthy and without lifelong disabilities.”

Prevention is the next frontier

A key way to reduce the burden of preterm birth is to find ways to help pregnancies go to full term, or at least 39 weeks.

"Prevention is the next frontier,” says Christopher Howson, Ph.D., Vice President of Global Programs for the March of Dimes and an epidemiologist. “We are looking closely at what can be done before a woman gets pregnant to help her have an optimal outcome."

A number of risk factors for mothers to deliver prematurely have been identified, including a prior history of preterm birth, underweight, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, smoking, infection, age (either under 17 or over 40), genetics, multiple pregnancy (twins, triplets, and more) and pregnancies spaced too closely together.

“We also know that poverty, lack of women’s education, malaria and HIV all have an impact on the pregnancy and the health of the baby,” says Dr Howson. “However, little is known about the interplay of these and other environmental and social factors in increasing the risk of preterm birth. We need to know more and this knowledge could have a big impact in the lowest income countries.”

Documented success for steroid use and Kangaroo Mother Care

In high-income countries, steroids have been widely used for women in preterm labour since the 1990s and an estimated 95% of women in preterm labour before 34 weeks of pregnancy now receive steroid injections prior to delivery.

By comparison, in low- and middle-income countries, only an estimated 5% of women receive these steroid injections.

Dr Lawn says that these medicines are rarely used in the developing world, despite the low cost and proven effectiveness, because health care professionals do not know about this life-saving use. In fact, antenatal steroids are now identified by a new UN-led Commission on Life-Saving Commodities for Women and Children as an essential medicine that should be available everywhere.

"The use of steroids should be part of the ‘to do’ list of everyone looking after women in pregnancy. It should be written on hospital walls," says Dr Lawn. “In America or Europe, if a woman in preterm labour were not given steroid injections, the doctor could be sued for malpractice, as this is the standard of care. Why should a woman in Africa or Asia not get the same care, especially given the low cost?”

Kangaroo Mother Care started as a solution for overcrowded nurseries in Colombia where infants were forced to share what incubators were available. The technique works well for both mothers and babies. Studies show that the mortality rate for babies who benefit from Kangaroo Mother Care can be the same or lower than that for babies in incubators.

Though Kangaroo Mother Care was developed in 1967, the spread has been slow despite the well-documented effectiveness and its benefits for child development.

“One reason for the slow spread in some areas could simply be a lack of information about what works,” says Dr Presern. “Another may be that many obstetricians, midwives and nurses find it hard to accept that such a natural approach could be superior to expensive high technology equipment.”

Countries make new commitments

On World Prematurity Day, a number of countries will announce major commitments to reduce preterm mortality. These countries have each adopted packages of interventions to care for premature babies and are championing initiatives in their countries and others. For example:

  • Malawi has the world's highest preterm birth rate, a statistic that led the Vice President Khumbo Kachali and the country's health leaders to prioritize care for preterm babies, instituting Kangaroo Mother Care and providing steroid injections in almost all hospitals.
  • India—with nearly 3 million moderate to late preterm births, the largest number in the world, and 304 000 preterm deaths per year—has been working with support from UNICEF to outfit 100 district hospitals to care for preterm babies.
  • Uganda has committed to speeding access to steroid injections for all women in preterm labour.

Born Too Soon report stimulates activity

Publication of the Born Too Soon report in May 2012 by the March of Dimes, PMNCH, the World Health Organization and Save the Children drew global attention to what many consider one of the world’s most overlooked public health problems. The report included the first country-by-country statistics for both absolute numbers and rates of preterm birth, documenting the extent and severity of the problem, also published in The Lancet.

The report showed that preterm births are not solely a problem of the developing world, but that wealthy countries, including the United States of America and Brazil, were also in the top 10, in terms of absolute numbers. To mark the publication of the report, more than 30 organizations made new or enhanced commitments in support of the Every Woman Every Child effort launched by the United Nations Secretary General BaFn Ki-moon.

About World Prematurity Day

Started last year by the March of Dimes and founding parent groups—European Foundation for the Care of Newborn Infants, Africa-based Little Big Souls International Foundation, and the National Premmie Foundation of Australia—World Prematurity Day will this year spread throughout the world, now involving more than 50 countries and groups globally.

Events are planned in many countries—including Argentina, China, Indonesia, Malawi, Malaysia, Uganda and the United States of America—to draw public attention to the problem of preterm birth and the simple care that can save many of these babies.


* Preterm is defined as babies born alive before 37 weeks of pregnancy are completed. There are sub-categories of preterm birth, based on gestational age:
extremely preterm (<28 weeks);
very preterm (28 to <32 weeks);
moderate to late preterm (32 to <37 weeks).

For more information please contact

Tarik Jasarevic
WHO Communications Officer
Geneva
Telephone: +41 22 791 5099
Mobile: +41 79 367 6214
E-mail: jasarevict@who.int

Fadéla Chaib
WHO Communications Officer
Geneva
Telephone: +41 22 791 3228
Mobile: +41 79 475 5556
E-mail: chaibf@who.int

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