Global Concern: 1 in 10 babies born preterm with complications, says UN Report

RNS: Startling statistics released by UN agencies and their partners reveal that approximately one in ten babies worldwide is born prematurely, before completing 37 weeks of pregnancy.

A report published on Thursday (5 October) estimated that a staggering 13.4 million infants were born prematurely in 2020, with almost one million of them succumbing to complications related to preterm birth.

Health experts attribute this alarming trend to factors like poor maternal health and malnutrition. Preterm birth, they assert, stands as the leading cause of death among young children, demanding immediate efforts to enhance both preterm baby care and prevention measures, especially focusing on maternal health and nutrition.

These findings come from the collaborative efforts of the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

The report also highlights the grim reality that preterm birth not only jeopardizes infant survival but also increases the likelihood of significant health issues, disabilities, developmental delays, and even chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart conditions in adulthood.

Disturbingly, over the past decade, no region across the globe has made significant progress in reducing preterm birth rates. The annual global reduction rate from 2010 to 2020 stood at just 0.14 per cent.

Dr Anshu Banerjee, Director of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health and Ageing at WHO, emphasized the vulnerability of preterm babies to life-threatening complications, underscoring their need for specialized care and attention.

The report, titled “National, Regional, and Global Estimates of Preterm Birth in 2020, with Trends from 2010: A Systematic Analysis,” provides comprehensive data on preterm births globally, regionally, and by country for the years between 2010 and 2020. It reveals significant disparities between regions and countries, with approximately 65 per cent of preterm births in 2020 occurring in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia, where over 13 per cent of babies were born prematurely.

In the most affected countries, such as Bangladesh, Malawi, and Pakistan, rates are three to four times higher than in the least affected nations, including Serbia, Moldova, and Kazakhstan.

Surprisingly, preterm birth isn’t solely an issue in low and middle-income countries, as some high-income nations, like Greece and the United States, report rates exceeding 10 per cent.

Dr Banerjee called for urgent investment in support services for preterm babies and their families, as well as a stronger emphasis on prevention, particularly ensuring access to high-quality healthcare during pregnancy.

He highlighted the crucial role of antenatal care in detecting and managing complications, accurate pregnancy dating through early ultrasound scans, and the use of approved treatments to delay labour when necessary.

The report’s estimates are based on population-based and nationally representative data, providing internationally comparable country-level figures for 2020 for the first time.

Nonetheless, data gaps persist, with 92 countries lacking adequate nationally representative data. The authors of the report have called for continued commitment to improve data availability and quality, as well as increased data sharing to target support and action where it is most needed.

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