Premature birth – the scale of the problem
15 million babies are born too soon each year. That is 29 babies every minute. More than 1 million die. Today, prematurity is the leading cause of death in newborn babies.
In the UK, 1 in 13 babies are born preterm. 60,000 families are affected every year. Premature newborns often require a prolonged stay in neonatal intensive care with the need for artificial ventilation. They run the risk of death, cerebral haemorrhage, bowel necrosis and infections because they are born too soon.
The health effects of being born too soon extend far beyond birth. Prematurity increases the risk of neurologic and respiratory disabilities, mental health disorders, impaired sight, hearing and learning delays. 1 in 10 premature babies will develop a permanent disability such as cerebral palsy, autism, deafness, blindness or serious health conditions in adulthood such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.
85% of women who present with threatened preterm labour do not know that they were at risk. For 45-50% of preterm births, the cause is unknown.
If we can prolong all pregnancies destined to deliver preterm by a week, we can save the NHS £260,000,000 a year.
What is prematurity?
Prematurity is the term used to describe all babies born before 37 weeks of pregnancy. In the UK, a baby is generally considered viable if it is born at 24 weeks, yet their chances of survival is only 50%.
Babies who are born too soon face many challenges. Their internal organs still need to grow and develop, so they need specialist care in a special or intensive neo-natal care unit. The earlier a baby is born the more likely their organs will suffer damage or not develop as they should because they are less mature.
Each day in the womb is essential to a baby’s healthy development and survival. For example, in the UK, babies born at 23 weeks have a 92% chance of experiencing a disability. If that baby can stay in the womb an extra three weeks and be born at 26 weeks, the chance of having a disability reduces to 41%.
- The World Health Organisation publishes a fact-sheet on preterm birth.
- Born Too Soon is a Global Action Report on Preterm Birth [WHO 2012]
- The Health Economics Research Centre (HERC) established by Oxford University conducted a study on the long-term economic costs of preterm birth in 2006-07, the last time a study of this scale was conducted in the UK.
- EPICure is a series of studies of survival and later health among babies and young people who were born at extremely low gestations – between 22 and 26 weeks.