Born too soon: Silent emergency claiming a million lives yearly

13.4 million infants globally were born prematurely in 2020, and close to 1 million of these succumbed to early birth complications.

Photo credit: Pool

An alarming number of 13.4 million infants globally were born prematurely in 2020, and close to 1 million of these succumbed to early birth complications. This is according to a freshly unveiled report by United Nations affiliates.

The data translates to nearly 1 in 10 babies being born before the 37th week of gestation.

"Born too soon: decade of action on preterm birth" is a report issued jointly by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), in collaboration with PMNCH, the world’s largest coalition for women, children, and adolescents.

It rings the warning bell on the often overlooked "silent emergency" of preterm birth, a significant obstacle to enhancing child health and survival.

Compiled in association with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the report includes revised estimates from WHO and UNICEF on the prevalence of preterm births.

The findings reveal a stagnant preterm birth rate across all global regions in the last decade, resulting in 152 million babies born prematurely from 2010 to 2020.

"The cost of inaction over the last decade was 152 million babies born too soon. Greater investment in the care of vulnerable newborns can save millions of families from heartbreak," said Prof.

Joy Lawn, co-lead of the report from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

According to the report, preterm birth has now become the primary cause of child mortality, responsible for over a fifth of all child deaths occurring before the age of five. Preterm survivors often face health complications throughout their lives, including a higher probability of disability and developmental delays.

"The toll is devastating. It’s time we improve access to care for pregnant mothers and preterm infants," said Steven Lauwerier, acting Director of Health at UNICEF.

Inequality in survival rates based on geographical location, income, and race is staggering. Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, regions with the highest preterm birth rates, also have the highest risk of preterm infant mortality. These two regions alone account for over 65 per cent of preterm births globally.

Dr Nahya Salim, a co-author of the report from Tanzania, emphasized the importance of local efforts, saying, "I am proud to see my government now investing and committed to implementation across even rural areas."

The report also uncovers the impacts of conflict, climate change, environmental degradation, Covid-19, and escalating living costs on the increased risk for women and infants. For instance, air pollution contributes to 6 million preterm births annually.

Maternal health risks, including adolescent pregnancy and pre-eclampsia, are closely associated with preterm births. This underscores the necessity of accessible sexual and reproductive health services, including family planning, coupled with high-quality prenatal care.

On the positive side, there has been a surge in community activism on preterm birth and stillbirth prevention in the past decade, spearheaded by groups consisting of parents, health professionals, academics, civil society members, and more.

In preparation for the upcoming International Maternal Newborn Health Conference in Cape Town, South Africa, WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA, and PMNCH are advocating for improved care for women and newborns and risk mitigation of preterm births through increased investments, accelerated implementation, integration across sectors, and locally driven innovation.