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Warning over premature births

8th May 2012

More than one in 10 babies are born prematurely, but relatively cheap treatments could ensure that three-quarters of them survive, a new report says.

Baby Ward

According to a new report entitled Born Too Soon: The Global Action Report on Preterm Birth, 1.1 million premature babies die every year, the majority of them shortly after birth.

Others survive, but suffer disabilities for the rest of their lives, affecting their health, nervous system or ability to access education.

The cost to families and society is huge, and yet many of the preterm babies who die could survive if they had access to existing, relatively inexpensive treatments, the report said.

More than 100 experts from 40 United Nations agencies, universities and other organisations contributed to the report, which sets out exactly what is known about preterm birth, its causes, and the kinds of care that are needed.

Report co-editor Joy Lawn said that being born too soon was an "unrecognised killer" of babies, with preterm births accounting for almost half of all newborn deaths worldwide.

After pneumonia, premature birth is the second leading cause of death in children under 5, Lawn said.

All but two of the 11 countries with the highest levels of premature birth- over 15% - are in sub-Saharan Africa, the report found.

While 12% of babies in low-income countries are born too soon, only 9% are in richer countries.

However, the United States and Brazil have similar levels of premature birth to many poorer countries.

More than 1 in 9 of births in the United States are preterm, a rate of around 12%.

India has the highest number of premature births, at more than 3.5 million, while China recorded nearly 1.2 million, followed by Nigeria, Pakistan and Indonesia, with figures around the 700,000 mark.

However, when the rates of preterm births are calculated per 100 births, instead of per country, the list is dominated by sub-Saharan African countries, topped by Malawi, Comoros and Congo and Zimbabwe.

By contrast, eastern European countries featured on the list of countries with the lowest rates of preterm births, with some of the lowest rates recorded in Belarus, Latvia, and Lithuania and Estonia.

However, experts warn that the numbers of preterm births are increasing globally.

"In all but 3 countries, preterm birth rates increased in the last 20 years," Lawn said in a statement issued alongside the report. "Worldwide, 50 million births still happen at home and many babies die without birth or death certificates," she said.

While preterm births in lower income countries are linked to health problems like malaria, HIV and high adolescent pregnancy rates, those in richer countries are linked to higher numbers of older mothers, and the use of fertility treatments.

According to report co-editor Christopher Howson, the report also highlights the dramatic survival gap between low-income and high-income countries for babies born before 28 weeks.

In low-income countries, more than 90% of extremely preterm babies die within the first few days of life, while less than 10% die in high-income countries, Howson said.

Countries that improved care of serious complications like infections and respiratory diseases, including Ecuador, Botswana, Turkey and Sri Lanka, have succeeded in halving their rates of neonatal deaths.


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