On November 17th of every year, World Prematurity Day is recognized as a way to raise awareness for the risks associated with preterm birth and highlight the improvements and potential for this sector of the medical field. It is likely that you or someone you know has a story directly related to a premature birth, that is a baby born alive before 37 weeks of pregnancy, according to the World Health Organization. Prematurity is divided into different categories, depending on how early a baby is born.; a moderate to late preterm baby is born between weeks 32-37, a very preterm baby is born between weeks 28-32, and an extremely preterm baby is born in less than 28 weeks of gestation. With approximately 15 million babies born prematurely each year (with this number seeing an incline), and with the various health complications associated with preterm birth, many healthcare providers dedicate their efforts to improving the quality of care and outcomes for the preterm babies and their families.
While some preterm babies can make a full recovery and never experience any health conditions associated with their prematurity, others may have devastating conditions ranging from milder learning, visual, and hearing disabilities to death. An alarming 1 million children die per year due to complications associated with preterm birth, and prematurity has been shown to be the leading cause of death globally for children under the age of 5, indicating the importance of addressing this issue.
While concerns associated with preterm birth are valid and highlight the importance of improving care for this population, there is hope. Data collected demonstrates that with feasible, cost effective care, including warmth, breastfeeding support, and basic care for infections and breathing difficulties can help many premature babies survive this critical early time. However, the disparities in access and delivery of this care between high and low income regions has exacerbated many of the difficulties associated with prematurity, as a higher percentage of premature babies born in low income areas are likely to experience disability or death due to their prematurity. “This urgent health crisis is significantly fueled by the health equity gap in our healthcare system,” states March of Dimes, one of the various global organizations that leads the annual World Prematurity Day.
As an organization whose mission is to provide equitable access to healthcare to underserved communities, LIG Global feels a strong connection to addressing the gap in premature healthcare in the underserved communities we work with, such as Cajamarca, Peru, and Dajabon, Dominican Republic. In past trips, we have worked with healthcare providers that play an integral role in successful delivery of preterm babies including OB/GYNs and neonatologists who can work with both the mother and child to ensure a healthy and safe birth. Additionally, as we value education very highly on our trips, we know that educating the communities we work with can have immense benefits on the outcomes of preterm births, as adjustments as subtle as implementing “kangaroo mother care,” where the baby is carried by the mother with skin-to-skin contact and has frequent breastfeeding, can make a difference for the infant’s condition. Additionally, it has shown that midwifery services can reduce the risk of prematurity by 24%; providing education for the practice of midwifery in these underserved regions can also be valuable in addressing some of these disparities associated with prematurity.
While there is still much more work to be done to address the risks of prematurity and the drastic disparities between different regions globally, through education and provision of this high quality and cost effective care to both the mother during her pregnancy and to the child at the time of birth and the critical period following birth, prematurity can be a controlled and manageable aspect of health.