Worldwide 15 million babies are born preterm each year and for one million of these, the day they are born is the day they die. Preterm birth is the single greatest cause of death and disability in children up to five years of age in the developed world. In Australia, more than 36,000 babies are born too soon – approximately 1 in 12 pregnancies ends preterm. This rate is more than double amongst Aboriginal and disadvantaged communities. Those born at the earliest gestational ages may suffer from severe problems such as cerebral palsy, developmental delay, chronic lung disease, diabetes or blindness. For those born at a later gestation, even approaching full-term, there may be behavioural and learning problems.
Discovering how to prevent this major complication of pregnancy needs to be one of the highest priorities for our profession and our community. Until recently, implementation of a whole-of-population strategy was nothing more than a researcher’s dream, but a variety of recent discoveries have made the assembling of an effective program possible.
A premature baby is one who is born too early, before 37 weeks. Premature babies may have more health problems and may need to stay in the hospital longer than babies born later. The earlier in pregnancy a baby is born, the more likely he is to have health problems. Some premature babies have to spend time in a hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (also called NICU). This is the part of a hospital that takes care of sick newborns. But thanks to advances in medical care, even babies born very prematurely are more likely to survive today than ever before.