News / Health

World Prematurity Day Aims to Lower Rates of Premature Births

Carol Pearson
Every year, in countries rich and poor, more than one million babies die because they are born prematurely.  Many of the tiny infants who survive suffer lifelong disabilities. 

In recent years, organizations focused on child health have been trying to raise awareness about the dangers of premature births and what can be done to prevent them.  That's the purpose of World Prematurity Day today.  It's also a day to educate mothers about how to care for babies who are born too soon.

This tiny newborn is one of more than 15 million babies who start their lives with a major disadvantage... being born too soon.

Preterm birth is the greatest killer of newborns around the world, yet most of these babies could be saved, according to Dr. Joy Lawn with Save the Children.

"Most of those babies don't need intensive care," said Lawn.  "They could be saved with 'kangaroo-mother' care... tying the baby to the mother's front, being able to breast feed, better weight gain, better temperature control, avoiding infections."  

An international coalition observes World Prematurity Day on November 17. It's part of a global effort to reduce the number of premature births worldwide and to save the one of every ten newborns who are delivered prematurely.

Christopher Howson is an epidemiologist with the March of Dimes.

"There's a lot that can be done with respect to prevention and the key for that begins in high-income countries," he said.

Howsen is one of the co-authors of a recent study about prematurity published in the British medical journal, The Lancet. The study recommends five proven ways to reduce premature birth rates.  These include ending elective cesarean sections and induced labor deliveries before 39 weeks of gestation.  Both practices have become fairly common in high income countries.  

New research finds that for normal development, babies need at least 39 weeks in the womb. Jennifer Howse is president of the March of Dimes Foundation.

"Full brain development, lung development does not take place until at least 39 weeks of completed gestation," she said. 

Other proven ways to reduce the number of premature births include limiting the number of embryos transferred to the womb during in vitro fertilizations, quitting tobacco use and limiting weight gain during pregnancy and making sure women have good health care before and throughout their pregnancies. Howsen says the data came from high income countries but the knowledge can be applied everywhere.

"These are issues that are also becoming issues of middle and even low-income countries," he added.

For those observing World Prematurity Day, a Facebook page lets people go online to share their stories about babies who are born too soon.  It's a simple and effective way to put a human face on the issue of prematurity.

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