More than one in five deaths that occur before the age of five are caused by premature birth
A “silent emergency” is taking place for children’s survival and health, according to a new report Born too soon: Decade of action on preterm birth released by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO), with Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (PMNCH).
The report included updated estimates from WHO and UNICEF, prepared with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, on the prevalence of preterm births.
2020 saw an anticipated 13.4 million preterm births, with almost a million of those babies succumbing to pre-term problems. Preterm births take place before 37 weeks of a 40-week anticipated full-term pregnancy.
The report reveals that five countries—India, Pakistan, Nigeria, China, and Ethiopia—accounted for over half of all preterm births (children born before the 37th week of pregnancy) in 2020. They collectively made up 45% of premature babies worldwide, placing them at a high mortality risk.
India tops the list of the five countries in terms of the overall number of preterm births with 30.16 lakh births, followed by Pakistan with 9.14 lakh, Nigeria with 7.74 lakh, and China with 7.52 lakh.
The anticipated rate of preterm births in 2020 was 16.2% in Bangladesh, followed by 14.5% in Malawi and 14.4% in Pakistan. India and South Africa were two of the top five nations with the highest preterm birth rates, with an estimated 13% each.
Overall, the analysis concludes that there has been no global change in preterm birth rates over the past few decades. In 2020, there were 9.9 percent more preterm births than there were in 2010, which was 9.8 percent.
Sub-Saharan Africa recorded 10.1 percent in both 2010 and 2020, whereas Southern Asia recorded 13.3 percent in 2010 and 13.2 percent in 2020. In fact, these two areas account for more than 65% of preterm births worldwide.
“Progress is flatlining for maternal and newborn health, as well as the prevention of stillbirths,” PMNCH Executive Director Helga Fogstad said.
The deadly intersection of COVID-19, climate change, escalating conflicts, and rising living costs is now pushing gains made back further, she warned.
“By working together in partnership – governments, donors, the private sector, civil society, parents, and health professionals – we can sound the alarm about this silent emergency,” she said.
This means bringing preterm prevention and care efforts to the forefront of national health and development efforts, building human capital by supporting families, societies, and economies everywhere, she added.
According to the report, preterm birth is now the main reason why children die, accounting for more than one in five of all deaths that happen before the age of five. Lifelong health repercussions for preterm survival include a higher risk of disability and developmental delays.
Even in high-income nations, the survey revealed glaring disparities in how likely preterm birth, mortality, and disability are, depending on race, ethnicity, income, and access to quality care.
Risks for mothers and infants worldwide are rising as a result of additional circumstances. For instance, the survey revealed that air pollution is thought to be a factor in six million premature births annually.
In addition, a new analysis in the paper finds that nearly one in ten preterm births occur in the ten most unstable nations experiencing humanitarian crises.
The survey revealed that organisations representing preterm birth-affected families have been at the forefront of the fight for greater access to care, policy change, and support for other families.
In addition, networks of parents, medical professionals, academics, and civil society have led to an increase in community action on the prevention of preterm birth and stillbirth over the past ten years.
The UN Population Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organisation (WHO), and UNICEF are among the UN agencies calling for a series of actions to save lives: increase investments in newborn health, speed up national policy implementation, integrate efforts across sectors, and support locally led innovation and research to support advancements in care quality and equity in access.
“Ensuring quality care for these tiniest, most vulnerable babies and their families is absolutely imperative for improving child health and survival,” said Anshu Banerjee, Director for Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health and Ageing at WHO.
Progress must also advance in prevention, which means every woman must be able to access quality health services before and during pregnancy to identify and manage risks, she said.