The World Health Organization (WHO) has found that no region of the world has been able to improve its preterm birth rates in the past decade.
Preterm birth, defined by the WHO as “babies born alive before 37 weeks of pregnancy,” is the leading cause of death in children under five.
A report by the WHO, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (PMNCH), has found that 152 million babies were born too soon from 2010-2020, with nearly 1 million dying each year.
The numbers have not changed significantly over the decade.
There were large regional differences in survival rates. In low-income countries, one in 10 extremely preterm babies (born at under 28 weeks) survived, whereas nine in 10 did in high-income countries.
Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa had both the highest preterm birth rates and the highest mortality rates from these births. Together, they accounted for more than 65% of preterm births.
The report also points out that climate change, environmental damage and COVID-19 have been rising risks for maternal health, and it singles out air pollution as being responsible for 6 million preterm births each year.
Conflicts and humanitarian crises are also listed as extra risks to maternal health.
“This new report shows that the cost of inaction over the last decade was 152 million babies born too soon,” says report co-lead Professor Joy Lawn, a researcher at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, UK.
“While some regions are more affected, preterm birth threatens health progress in every country. Greater investment in the care of vulnerable newborns can save millions of families from heartbreak.
“More work is also needed to prevent preterm birth, which will also improve progress in reducing stillbirths and maternal deaths.”
The report highlights several steps that could be taken to lower the rates of preterm birth, including optimising maternal and newborn healthcare, education, climate change adaptation and the resilience of emergency systems, and investing in local research and ideas to support care and access.
“Ensuring quality care for these tiniest, most vulnerable babies and their families is absolutely imperative for improving child health and survival,” says Dr Anshu Banerjee, director for Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health and Ageing at WHO.
“Progress is also needed to help prevent preterm births — this means every woman must be able to access quality health services before and during pregnancy to identify and manage risks.”
Helga Fogstad, executive director of PMNCH, adds: “By working together in partnership – governments, donors, the private sector, civil society, parents, and health professionals – we can sound the alarm about this ‘silent emergency’, and bring preterm prevention and care efforts to the forefront of national health and development efforts, building human capital by supporting families, societies and economies everywhere.”