A new report released by the United Nations agencies on Tuesday finds that preterm birth rates have not changed in any region in the world in the past decade, with 152 million vulnerable babies born too soon from 2010 to 2020.
The report also showed that an estimated 13.4 million babies were born preterm in 2020, with nearly one million dying from preterm complications.
This is equivalent to around one in 10 babies born early (before 37 weeks of pregnancy) worldwide.
The report titled ‘Born too soon: decade of action on preterm birth’ is produced by the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Children’s Fund together with the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health.
They sound the alarm on a “silent emergency” of preterm birth, long under-recognized in its scale and severity, which is impeding progress in improving children’s health and survival.
The report includes updated estimates from WHO and UNICEF, prepared with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, on the prevalence of preterm births.
“Preterm birth is now the leading cause of child deaths, accounting for more than 1 in 5 of all deaths of children occurring before their fifth birthday. Preterm survivors can face lifelong health consequences, with an increased likelihood of disability and developmental delays.
“Building from a landmark report on the topic in 2012, this new Born too soon “decade” report provides a comprehensive overview of the prevalence of preterm birth and its profound impact on women, families, societies and economies.
Too often, where babies are born determines if they survive. The report notes that only one in 10 extremely preterm babies (<28 weeks) survive in low-income countries, compared to more than nine in 10 in high-income countries. Gaping inequalities related to race, ethnicity, income, and access to quality care determine the likelihood of preterm birth, death, and disability, even in high-income countries.
“Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa have the highest rates of preterm birth, and preterm babies in these regions face the highest mortality risk. Together, these two regions account for more than 65 per cent of preterm births globally,” WHO said in a press statement.
The report also highlights that the impacts of conflict, climate change and environmental damage, COVID-19, and rising living costs are increasing risks for women and babies everywhere.
For example, air pollution is estimated to contribute to six million preterm births each year. Nearly one in 10 preterm babies are born in the 10 most fragile countries affected by humanitarian crises, according to a new analysis in the report.
Maternal health risks, such as adolescent pregnancy and pre-eclampsia, are closely linked to preterm births. This underlines the need to ensure access to sexual and reproductive health services, including effective family planning, with high-quality care during pregnancy and around the time of birth.
The Director for Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health and Ageing at WHO, Dr Anshu Banerjee said, “Ensuring quality care for these tiniest, most vulnerable babies and their families is absolutely imperative for improving child health and survival.
“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.”