Friday, November 17th marks World Prematurity Day. Part of the March of Dimes’ Prematurity Campaign, the event is designed to raise awareness of the problem of premature birth and to support ongoing efforts to reduce rates of premature birth in the United States and around the world.
According to the March of Dimes, roughly 10 percent of U.S. births each year are premature, meaning that they take place before the 37th week of pregnancy. The World Health Organization identifies complications resulting from premature birth as the leading cause of death for children under the age of 5, and premature infants have a substantially elevated risk for a host of serious medical problems, some of them lifelong.
“With premature babies, pretty much every organ system is immature – everything is still developing. The human body wants a chance to mature for 9 months, and when it doesn’t get that chance, there are challenges,” says Dr. Rachel Greenberg, a neonatologist at the Duke Department of Pediatrics and a researcher with the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s Pediatric Trials Network. She notes that these challenges are complicated by the fact that some therapies that are vital to sustaining premature infants can cause them additional harm. Worse, many medicines used to treat premature infants are not well-studied in this fragile population.
“We have to make an educated guess on what the dose is, based on the dose in adults,” says Greenberg, whose work with the Pediatric Trials Network is focused on gathering evidence to guide the use of medications in children and infants.
Premature birth also takes a heavy toll on parents, who often endure tremendous emotional stress while their child undergoes treatment—sometimes for weeks or months—in a hospital neonatal intensive care unit. “It can be the happiest day of their lives, and it can be the scariest,” notes Dr. Greenberg. “They’re so excited to have a child, but the baby’s sick.”
While neonatologists like Greenberg seek better treatments for premature infants, World Prematurity Day is part of efforts to prevent premature birth in the first place. This is a particularly urgent issue, as rates of premature birth have been rising around the globe in recent years, including in the United States, whose overall performance earns it a grade of “C” on the March of Dimes’ 2017 Premature Birth Report Card. Although infections and other underlying health issues in the mother are known to play a role, Duke’s Greenberg points out that the chain of events leading to a premature birth is often far from clear.
“Many times, we don’t know what causes it,” she says.
The March of Dimes’ Prematurity Campaign is supporting research into preventing premature birth, with the goal of reducing the U.S. rate of premature birth to 8.1 percent by 2020. The campaign also supports efforts to improve care delivery and foster advocacy and community engagement.
More information on World Prematurity Day activities, as well as ways to get involved, can be found at the March of Dimes website.