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15 million babies born prematurely worldwide every year – New WHO report

A new World Health Organisation (WHO) led-report has found that each year, some 15 million babies in the world, more than one in 10 births, are born too early.

The report “Born too soon: the global action report on preterm birth” released May 2, 2012 also revealed that more than one million of those babies die shortly after birth and countless others suffer some type of lifelong physical, neurological, or educational disability, often at great cost to families and society.

According to the report, estimated three-quarters of those preterm babies who die could survive without expensive care if a “few proven and inexpensive treatments and preventions were available worldwide.”

Contributors to the report opine that being born too soon is an unrecognized killer and stated that preterm births have been an overlooked and neglected problem. It defined preterm as 37 weeks of completed gestation or less, which is the standard WHO definition.

New figures in the report showed that both the magnitude of the problem and the disparities between countries. “Of the 11 countries with preterm birth rates over 15%, all but two are in sub-Saharan Africa. Preterm births account for 11.1% of the world’s live births, 60% of them in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa,” the WHO said.

In the poorest countries, on average, 12% of babies are born too soon, compared to 9% in higher-income countries, it added.

The problem of preterm births is not confined to low-income countries. The report observed that the United States and Brazil both rank among the top 10 countries with the highest number of preterm births. In the United States, for example, about 12%, or more than one in nine of all births, are preterm. The report gave the following figures on premature babies.

The countries with the greatest numbers of preterm births are
· India – 3 519 100
· China – 1 172 300
· Nigeria – 773 600
· Pakistan – 748 100
· Indonesia – 675 700
· United States – 517 400
· Bangladesh – 424 100
· Philippines – 348 900
· Democratic Republic of the Congo – 341 400
· Brazil – 279 300

The 10 countries with the highest rates of preterm births for every 100 births are:
· Malawi – 18.1 per 100
· Comoros – 16.7
· Congo – 16.7
· Zimbabwe – 16.6
· Equatorial Guinea – 16.5
· Mozambique – 16.4
· Gabon – 16.3
· Pakistan – 15.8
· Indonesia – 15.5
· Mauritania – 15.4

Those contrast with the 11 countries with the lowest rates of preterm births:
· Belarus – 4.1
· Ecuador – 5.1
· Latvia – 5.3
· Finland – 5.5
· Croatia – 5.5
· Samoa – 5.5
· Lithuania – 5.7
· Estonia – 5.7
· Antigua/Barbuda – 5.8
· Japan – 5.9
· Sweden – 5.9

“Worldwide, 50 million births still happen at home and many babies die without birth or death certificates,” says Joy Lawn, M.D., PhD, co-editor of the report.

The report listed recommendations to solve the problem. They include specific actions such as addressing the missing essential medicines and equipment, training existing health staff in how to look after women in preterm labor and these vulnerable babies, increased funding for research to find new prevention solutions, and better data for accurate future counts. Efforts to increase awareness of the preterm birth issue are essential.

With more than 100 experts who contributed to the report, representing almost 40 UN agencies, universities, and organizations, the lead authors of the report are from The March of Dimes Foundation, The Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health, Save the Children and The World Health Organization.

By Ekow Quandzie

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