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13.4 million babies born preterm globally in 2020, nearly 1m die: UN

UN says 13.4 million babies born preterm globally in 2020, 1m dies

HQ Team

October 6, 2023: About 13.4 million babies were born early in 2020, with nearly one million dying from preterm complications, according to UN agencies and its partners.

That translated to about one in ten babies born early, before 37 weeks of pregnancy worldwide.

“Since prematurity is the leading cause of death in children’s early years, there is an urgent need to strengthen both care for preterm babies as well as prevention efforts – particularly maternal health and nutrition – so as to improve childhood survival,” according to a report from the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said.

Health experts blamed poor maternal health and malnutrition for the high numbers. 

Major illnesses

“For those who live, preterm birth also significantly increases the likelihood of suffering major illnesses, disability and developmental delays, and even chronic diseases as adults like diabetes and heart conditions.”

The report’s other major trends related to maternal health. No region of the world has significantly reduced rates of preterm births over the last decade.

The annual global rate of reduction in preterm births between 2010 and 2020 was just 0.14%.

“Preterm babies are especially vulnerable to life-threatening health complications, and they need special care and attention,” said Dr. Anshu Banerjee, Director of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health and Ageing at WHO.

The report revealed large disparities between regions and countries between 2010 and 2020. 

Southern Asia

About 65% of preterm births in 2020 occurred in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia, where over 13%of babies were born preterm. The rates in the worst affected countries – Bangladesh, Malawi and Pakistan – are three or four times higher than those in the least affected countries – Serbia, Moldova and Kazakhstan.

Preterm birth was not just an issue in low and middle-income countries. Data showed that it affects families in all parts of the world. Rates of 10% or higher occur in some high-income countries such as Greece and the US.

“These numbers show an urgent need for serious investment in services available to support them and their families as well as a greater focus on prevention – in particular, ensuring access to quality health care before and during every pregnancy,” Dr Banerjee said.

Maternal health risks, such as adolescent pregnancy, infections, poor nutrition, and pre-eclampsia, were closely linked to preterm births, according to the report.

Quality antenatal care is critical to detect and manage complications, to ensure accurate pregnancy dating through early ultrasound scans and if needed, to delay labour through approved treatments.

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