15 million of world’s babies are born prematurely

WASHINGTON (AP) - About 15 million premature babies are born every year _ more than 1 in 10 of the world’s births and a bigger problem than previously believed, according to the first country-by-country estimates of this obstetric epidemic.

The startling toll: 1.1 million of these fragile newborns die as a result, and even those who survive can suffer lifelong disabilities.

Most of the world’s preemies are born in Africa and Asia, says the report released Wednesday.

It’s a problem for the U.S., too, where half a million babies are born too soon. That’s about 1 in 8 U.S. births, a higher rate than in Europe, Canada, Australia or Japan _ and even worse than rates in a number of less developed countries, too, the report found.

But the starkest difference between rich and poorer countries: Survival.

“Being born too soon is an unrecognized killer,” said Dr. Joy Lawn of Save the Children, who co-authored the report with the March of Dimes, World Health Organization and a coalition of international health experts. “And it’s unrecognized in the countries where you could have a massive effect in reducing these deaths.”

Sophisticated and expensive intensive care saves the majority of preterm babies in the U.S. and other developed nations, even the tiniest, most premature ones. The risk of death from prematurity is at least 12 times higher for an African newborn than for a European baby, the report found.

Globally, prematurity is not only the leading killer of newborns but the second-leading cause of death in children under 5.

“These facts should be a call to action,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote in an introduction to the report.

Three-quarters of the deaths could be prevented by spreading some simple, inexpensive treatments to the neediest countries, the report concludes. For example, providing $1 steroid shots during preterm labor hastens development of immature fetal lungs. They’re standard in developed countries; wider use in low-income countries could save nearly 400,000 babies a year.

Even more lives could be saved by teaching “kangaroo care,” in which moms carry their tiny babies nestled skin-to-skin on their bare chests for warmth when there are no incubators.

“To see babies who are 900 grams (about 2 pounds) survive without any technology, it’s fantastic,” says Lawn, who has watched kangaroo care save lives in countries like Malawi, with the highest preterm birth rate _ 18.1 percent.

Also needed: Antibiotics to fight the infections that often kill newborns, and antiseptic cream to prevent umbilical cord infection.

Survival isn’t the only hurdle. No one knows how many preemies suffer disabilities including cerebral palsy, blindness or learning disorders.

That’s why preventing preterm births in the first place is the ultimate goal, one reason for comparing countries _ to learn why some do better and some worse. Previously, the groups had estimated that 13 million babies were born prematurely each year, based on regional data.

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