Washington: Over one million infants who are born too early die each year, according to a new White Paper.
Titled ‘The Global and Regional Toll of Preterm Birth’, it shows that in 2005, an estimated 13 million babies worldwide were born preterm — defined as birth at less than 37 full weeks of gestation — which was almost 10 percent of total births worldwide.
The paper attributes about one million deaths in the first month of life — or 28 percent of total newborn deaths — to preterm birth.
According to the White Paper, the highest preterm birth rates in the world are found in Africa, followed by North America — US and Canada combined.
These data are being presented at the 4th International Conference on Birth Defects and Disabilities in the Developing World to be held in early October in New Delhi, India.
"Premature births are an enormous global problem that is exacting a huge toll emotionally, physically, and financially on families, medical systems and economies," says Dr. Jennifer L. Howse, president of the March of Dimes.
"In the United States alone, the annual cost of caring for preterm babies and their associated health problems tops 26 billion dollars annually.
"If world leaders are serious about reaching the United Nation``s Millennium Development Goals to reduce child mortality and improve maternal health, then strategies and funding for reducing death and disability related to preterm birth must receive priority," Dr. Howse adds.
The White Paper is based on data published recently in The Bulletin of the World Health Organization (WHO).
Worldwide, the preterm birth rate is estimated at 9.6 percent, representing about 12.9 million babies. Though all countries are affected, the toll of preterm birth is particularly severe for Africa and Asia, where more than 85 percent of all preterm births occur.
The White Paper also suggests that babies who survive a preterm birth face the risk of serious lifelong health problems, including cerebral palsy, blindness, hearing loss, learning disabilities, and other chronic conditions.
It further states that even infants born late preterm have a greater risk of re-hospitalisation, breathing problems, feeding difficulties, temperature instability (hypothermia), jaundice and delayed brain development.
The paper says that some known risk factors for preterm birth can be identified before or during pregnancy: for example, women who have already had one preterm baby are at greater risk.
According to the paper, some preterm births may be preventable by addressing known modifiable risk factors, including nutrition and body weight, existing medical conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes, alcohol and tobacco use, second-hand smoke and early elective inductions and elective Cesarean delivery.
However, Dr. says Christopher P. Howson, vice president for Global Programs of the March of Dimes, there is no reliable way to prevent or delay preterm birth.
"While much can be done right now to reduce death and disability from preterm birth even in low-resource settings, we need to know more about the underlying causes of premature birth in order to develop effective prevention strategies," he says.
The authors of the white paper stress the need for greater efforts to inform health professionals, policy makers, women of childbearing age, and others about the worldwide toll of preterm birth and opportunities for prevention and for care of women with high-risk pregnancies and their babies.