A new study has shown that an estimated 13.4 million babies were born before 37 full weeks of pregnancy in 2020. This means that 1 in 10 babies worldwide were born early.
The study published in the Lancet by authors from the World Health Organisation, WHO, the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine bemoaned the impact on health and survival, adding that, poor maternal health, malnutrition contribute to high numbers of preterm births.
The authors posited that that since prematurity is the leading cause of death in children’s early years, there was an urgent need to strengthen both care for preterm babies as well as prevention efforts, particularly, maternal health and nutrition to improve childhood survival.
The paper, National, regional, and Global Estimates of Preterm Birth in 2020, with Trends from 2010: A Systematic Analysis, provides global, regional and country estimates and trends for preterm births between 2010 and 2020, revealing large disparities between regions and countries.
According to the paper, around 65 per cent of preterm births in 2020 occurred in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia, where over 13 per cent of babies were born preterm. The rates in the worst affected countries – Bangladesh (16.2 per cent), Malawi (14.5 per cent) and Pakistan (14.3 per cent) – are three or four times higher than those in the least affected countries – Serbia (3.8 per cent), Moldova (4 per cent) and Kazakhstan (4.7 per cent).
Preterm birth is not just an issue in low and middle-income countries, however, and the data shows clearly that it affects families in all parts of the world. Rates of 10 per cent or higher occur in some high-income countries such as Greece (11.6 per cent) and the United States of America (10 per cent).
Studies have shown that maternal health risks, such as adolescent pregnancy, infections, poor nutrition, and pre-eclampsia, are closely linked to preterm births. The study also noted that quality antenatal care was critical to detect and manage complications, to ensure accurate pregnancy dating through early ultrasound scans and if needed, to delay labour through approved treatments.