As November 17th is World Prematurity Day, Wellbeing of Women – the UK health charity investing in the future of women and their babies by funding pioneering medical research – asked Dr Angharad Care, a Clinical Research Fellow working at the Harris-Wellbeing Preterm Birth Research Centre, to explain why raising awareness of prematurity is so important.
Every year, 15 million babies are born prematurely worldwide – that’s 29 babies every minute. Sadly, around one million of these babies will not survive and, globally, the rate of preterm birth is rising.
What is premature birth?
Prematurity is a term used to describe all babies born below 37 weeks of pregnancy. A ‘term baby’ is born between 37 weeks and 42 weeks. Post-term or post-maturity pregnancy is when pregnancy continues into the 42nd week of pregnancy.
Not all prematurity is the same. Preterm babies have not had the same chance as babies born full term to grow and develop all their internal organs and many will need special or intensive care in a neonatal unit. The earlier in the pregnancy the baby is delivered, the less mature the baby’s organs are and the more likely it is that those organs will suffer damage or not develop as they should.
Some babies will be born prematurely due to conditions severely affecting the health of the mum, such as pre-eclampsia, cancer or heart conditions which could be aggravated by pregnancy. These babies have to be delivered early to prevent serious illness in their mums and, in some rare cases, the mother will require treatment that could harm a baby in the womb.
Another group of mums will experience “spontaneous” preterm birth. This is when labour is triggered earlier in the pregnancy than expected. If a woman goes into labour before 22 weeks of pregnancy, the pregnancy is not considered “viable.” This means that the baby is too small and underdeveloped to survive. This can also be called “late miscarriage.”
However, the chance of a baby surviving at 22 weeks is extremely poor – statistically only 1% will survive and the chance of surviving without moderate or severe disability is just 0.4%.
What causes premature birth?
The causes of preterm birth are, unfortunately, poorly understood. Under the umbrella term of preterm birth, there are likely to be a number of causes that we don’t yet understand. In some instances, an infection can trigger labour, but often there are multiple poorly understood contributing factors.
This is why the research into the causes of preterm birth was chosen as an area of focus at the Harris Wellbeing Preterm Birth Centre – it is virtually impossible to target the correct treatments to the right women without understanding the cause.
What is being done in the UK to improve these heart-breaking statistics?
The only way to improve the outlook and our understanding of premature birth is through high quality, peer-reviewed research such as that being carried out by Wellbeing of Women.
Wellbeing of Women has invested over £8.1 million into preterm birth research over the past decades, with some of our early work paving the way for better treatment of preterm babies the world over.
In 1978 Wellbeing of Women funded Professor Colin Morley to develop an artificial surfactant which, when puffed into the lungs of premature babies soon after birth, helped to sustain their breathing until their own natural surfactant developed. This procedure is now used routinely and has brought great benefit to very small babies who are in a critical condition.
Wellbeing of Women has funded pioneering work into the use of cooling techniques to improve outcomes for babies that have been brain damaged due to perinatal asphyxia which is much more common among premature babies, a condition resulting from oxygen deprivation which can cause disability or death. A recent study, funded by Wellbeing of Women, found that the use of the naturally-occurring hormone, melatonin, provided additional protective benefits above those achieved by cooling alone.
Wellbeing of Women continues to invest significant amounts of money into preventing and treating premature birth, and into the causes behind it.
Thanks to the incredible generosity of Lord and Lady Harris of Peckham, The Harris-Wellbeing Preterm Birth Centre, based at the Liverpool Women’s Hospital – where 8,000 babies are delivered each year, was opened in 2015. This centre is dedicated purely to the care of women and their babies at risk of, or who have suffered from, a premature birth.
Wellbeing of Women has a rich legacy of funding high quality research into this area. Over the past 50 years, we have seen so many advances into the care of premature babies, yet there is still so much still to do to make sure that babies born prematurely have the best possible quality of life.
There are still so many questions yet to be answered and the only way we can find those answers is to fund more of this ground-breaking research, but we can only do this with your help and generosity. To support our work, please donate here, or to send your support directly to the Harris Wellbeing Research Centre send a JustGiving Text “HWWC15 £10/£5/£2” to 70070.
To read about this subject in more detail, please click here to read our article ‘Premature Birth – Everything You Need To Know‘.
- WHO Born Too Soon – The Global Action Report on Preterm Birth http://www.who.int/pmnch/media/news/2012/201204_borntoosoon-report.pdf
- Data from EpiCURE and EpiCURE 2 – a population based studies of survival and later health status in extremely premature infants http://www.epicure.ac.uk/overview/overall-outcome/
- With many thanks to Dr Angharad Care at the Harris-Wellbeing Preterm Birth Centre, Liverpool Women’s Hospital.
*Surfactant is a naturally occurring substance produced by the lungs that helps maintain healthy lung function and breathing.