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Preterm birth complications are the leading cause of death for children under five years of age.

November 16, 2015 by Kat Kelley
Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki
Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki

Preterm birth complications are the leading cause of death for children under five years of age. Survival rates, particularly for babies born extremely premature (three months early), can vary drastically from 10 percent in low-resource settings to 90 percent in high-resource settings. While many babies are born in low-resource settings, outside of hospitals, and without access to high-tech interventions, it is still possible to provide the basic care many preemies need to survive. For example, a number of low-cost innovations and interventions, such as breathing support and clean cord care, have the potential to slash newborn mortality.

GHTC member, The Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth (GAPPS), in partnership with Project Concern International and the American College of Nurse Midwives, has received a five-year, US$9 million grant from the US Agency for International Development for the Every Preemie—SCALE initiative to identify lifesaving interventions for the prevention and treatment of preterm birth and low birthweight and to support the scale-up of these interventions in 23 countries across Asia and Africa.

To learn more about GAPPS’ work on the Every Preemie—SCALE initiative, we’re joined by Dr. Jim Litch, director of the Perinatal Interventions Program at GAPPS.

Q: Central to the Every Preemie—SCALE initiative is research to identify evidence-based solutions for the treatment and management of preterm birth and low birthweight. What’s been done so far and what key findings are emerging?

A: Ideally, pregnant women should have access to prenatal care, which is particularly important for women at risk of preterm birth who need particular prevention services and care interventions. Far too often, however, prenatal care is out of reach for families, of poor quality, or does not include the special needs for preterm births and preterm newborn care.

Preterm birth has only recently received attention from the global health community, and there are many emerging opportunities to learn from current efforts to expand maternal and newborn health programs to include preterm birth prevention and care content.

Preterm babies have different needs than full-term babies, and recognizing this helps us develop tools and interventions across the continuum of care. Just this month, accurate growth curves for weight, length, and head circumference for healthy preterm babies born as a single birth were published to complement existing growth standards for full-term infants and provide new, accurate standards for fetal growth.

Through Every Preemie, GAPPS is supporting implementation research with local partners in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, and Malawi. In Bangladesh, we are testing a simple method of estimating gestational age during pregnancy using a tape measure and weight scale. In Ethiopia, we are evaluating implementation of preterm birth services within multi-partner maternal and newborn health programs across the continuum from the community to district hospital level in different living contexts (settled, semi-settled and urban). In India we are preparing to assess the safe use of antenatal corticosteroids (ACS)—which have been shown to reduce preterm birth complications—among women in imminent preterm labor, including pre-referral first dose of ACS administered by auxiliary nurse midwives. And in Malawi we are investigating the effectiveness of a comprehensive community mobilization approach designed to better link communities to preterm-related health services from the household to the facility level.

A recurring finding from the implementation and research communities is that context is critical. What works well in one setting may not work well in another. This is a lesson that returns to us time and again. Standardized outcomes and robust descriptions of the settings from which evidence is obtained create a greater burden on research, evaluation, and program resources.

Q: Can you talk a bit about some of the technologies identified as potential solutions under Every Preemie? And what characteristics make a product or intervention realistically scalable in low-resource settings?

A: Infant death and morbidity following preterm birth can be reduced through interventions provided to the mother before and during pregnancy, including the period around delivery, and to the preterm infant after birth. The most beneficial set of maternal interventions are those that could improve survival chances and health outcomes of preterm infants when preterm birth is inevitable. In August 2015, the first World Health Organization recommendations on the Interventions to Improve Preterm Birth Outcomes were issued. These recommendations provide important guidance on interventions and related technologies that could be provided during pregnancy, labor, and the newborn period with the aim of improving outcomes for preterm infants.

Understanding the demand for services is of critical importance when working to realistically reach scale in low-resource settings. This includes a need to better understand the knowledge, attitudes, and perceptions of families around preterm birth and preterm newborns in individual communities and settings, as well as the demand created by care providers within existing maternal, newborn, and reproductive health service delivery systems. Now more than ever, improvement in preterm outcomes requires a truly integrated approach.

Q: What role will advocacy—whether at the global, national, and local level—play in advancing the innovations and interventions identified through Every Preemie?

A: Advocacy is fundamental at all levels for real, lasting change. Moving a community to success can be accelerated by advocacy. When professional organizations, parent groups, economists, and others all demonstrate the effects of quality prenatal and newborn care, governments will institute policies to provide not just for the wealthy but also for the most vulnerable.

The best interventions, products, and services can have impact on preterm survival only when the required attention and ongoing needs are continuously met for these highly vulnerable developing fetuses and preterm newborns. Ultimately a chain of basic newborn care, combined with special basic care for preterm newborns (thermal care, adequate feeding, hygiene, and counseling) is essential for more sophisticated clinical interventions and products to be successful in saving lives and limiting morbidity. Doing basic care well, for all pregnant women and newborns, will go a long way in supporting preterm survival and the effectiveness of clinical interventions directed at preterm complications.

The numbers support this approach. Infants born before 34 weeks gestation, for which more advanced clinical interventions target, comprise roughly 3 percent of all births and about 30 percent of all preterm births. Also, the majority of newborns who die as a result of intrapartum complications, birth asphyxia, and severe newborn infection (also among the leading causes on newborn mortality) are preterm.

Success depends on the right care, in the right place, at the right time—every time.

Categories: Child health

About the author

Kat KelleyGHTC

Kat Kelly is a senior program assistant at GHTC who supports GHTC's communications and member engagement activities.