Rising Preterm Birth Rates Leveling Off, but Prevention Remains Difficult, New Save the Children-Led Lancet Study Finds

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Current Limits of Prevention for the World's 15 Million Preterm Births Contrast with High, Immediate Potential to Save Preterm Babies Lives with Low-Cost Care, Says Lead Author

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Dr. Joy Lawn talks about what can be done now to save preterm babies.

WESTPORT, Conn. (November 15, 2012) — The first multi-country study on trends in preterm births and the current potential to reduce them will appear in Friday's Lancet medical journal and show that after years of poorly explained rises in preterm birth, the rates over the last 5 years are now leveling off in more than half of 39 high income countries assessed.

But with few highly effective interventions for preterm prevention, the U.S. and 38 other high-income countries could reduce preterm births by only 5% by 2015, even if the five currently available evidence-based interventions were fully implemented, according to the new study. The research was conducted by an international team of researchers and coordinated by Save the Children.

Yet even this tiny reduction of 58,000 preterm births annually could result in $3 billion cost savings because care for extremely premature babies, is complex and expensive, and also results in lost earnings for families. Almost half of this cost saving would be in the United States, which has over half a million preterm babies each year.

"This study shows that even the best efforts based on current science could prevent only a tiny fraction of the massive number of preterm births," said Dr. Joy Lawn of Save the Children's Saving Newborn Lives program, and the study's lead author.

"On the other hand, we already have high impact low-cost care that could save at least half the 1.1 million newborns deaths that occur from preterm births each year," she said. "More than 85% of preterm babies are only a few weeks preterm — born too soon, but not born to die. There is no excuse for these babies to die when essential, simple care will save their lives."

"We need urgent action on two gaps — the knowledge gap for preventing preterm birth, and the action gap to save newborn babies' lives now by getting frontline health workers and essential medicines to the mothers and babies who need care the most," Dr. Lawn said.

Save the Children calls on Americans to honor the critical and lifesaving role of health workers by nominating a health worker that made an impact in their own lives at www.TheRealAwards.com.

75% of Preterm Babies Could Be Saved without Neonatal Intensive Care

Existing, low-tech interventions could prevent 75 percent of 1.1 million annual preterm deaths, the vast majority of which occur in developing countries. Steroid injections for women in preterm labor, antibiotics for newborn infections and Kangaroo Mother Care (wrapping preterm babies in skin-to-skin contact with their mother for warmth and easier breastfeeding) could save hundreds of thousands of lives.

The new Lancet study is a follow on from the groundbreaking "Born Too Soon" report on prematurity published in May with input from 50 organizations coordinated by the World Health Organization, March of Dimes, PMNCH and Save the Children. That report was based on the first national and global numbers of preterm babies, also published in The Lancet in a study coordinated by Dr. Lawn.

Born Too Soon focused on care and set a target of reducing preterm deaths by 50% by 2025. The new Lancet paper addresses preterm prevention, and recommends a target of only 5% by 2015 for preventing preterm births and only in high-income countries, where detailed records made the analysis feasible. The five interventions the authors found could lead to that 5% reduction are: smoking cessation, decreasing multiple embryo transfers during artificial insemination, cervical cerclage (a surgical procedure), progesterone supplementation and reduction of elective C-sections.

Get Involved, Help Save Lives

Greater investment in training and equipping frontline health workers is needed to deliver the care needed to save babies' lives, Save the Children said. Newborns are vulnerable and preterm babies, the most vulnerable. Health workers and families need support to ensure these babies survive and thrive.

Yet another new study published in PLoS Medicine shows that only 0.01 percent of foreign assistance programs for maternal, newborn and child health mention interventions that specifically help newborns survive. The United States is currently the largest funder for newborn programs globally, but Congress could soon slash the 1% of the budget that goes to foreign assistance.

To oppose such cuts, send a letter to Congress here: www.savethechildren.org/cuts.

Saturday is World Prematurity Day

In related action this week, more than 40 countries are planning activities on Saturday, November 17 for World Prematurity Day. Activities are designed to raise awareness about the more than 1 in 10 babies who are born prematurely and to mobilize action to improve care and address prevention worldwide.

In Malawi, which has the world's highest estimated preterm birth rate, health officials are holding a summit to expand the use of kangaroo mother care and help ensure that antenatal steroids reach all who need them. The Ugandan government will host a national stakeholder meeting on preterm birth and announce a commitment on preterm birth to the Every Woman Every Child movement, which is led by the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Other countries are participating in awareness campaigns, such as the Global Illumination Initiative where cities are lighting landmarks and buildings, such as The Empire State Building, in purple to honor preterm babies and their parents.

The new Lancet study coordinated by Dr. Lawn included experts from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Boston Consulting Group, March of Dimes, National Institute of Child Health & Human Development, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth, and the World Health Organization. Read the study

Save the Children is the leading independent organization for children in need, with programs in more than 120 countries, including the United States. We aim to inspire breakthroughs in the way the world treats children, and to achieve immediate and lasting change in their lives by improving their health, education and economic opportunities. In times of acute crisis, we mobilize rapid assistance to help children recover from the effects of war, conflict and natural disasters. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

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