United Nations agencies said an estimated 13.4 million babies were born early before 37 weeks of pregnancy in 2020, which translates to around one in 10 of all live births.
The report was based on a detailed study published in the Lancet by authors from the World Health Organisation, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“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. 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.
“As with other major trends relating 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 per cent,’” it said,” the report stated.
Director of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health and Ageing at WHO, Dr. Anshu Banerjee, said preterm babies are especially vulnerable to life-threatening health complications and so, need special care and attention.
He said that these numbers showed an urgent need for serious investment in services available to support them and their families as well as a greater focus on prevention.
He said that the main issue was ensuring access to quality health care before and during every pregnancy.
The report highlighted the national, regional, and global estimates of preterm births in 2020, with trends from 2010, and a systematic analysis provided global, regional and country estimates.
Similarly, trends for preterm births between 2010 and 2020 revealed large disparities between regions and countries.
It stated that around 65 per cent of preterm births in 2020 occurred in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia, where over 13 per cent of babies were born preterm.
The report listed the rates in the worst affected countries to include Bangladesh 16.2 per cent, Malawi 14.5 per cent and Pakistan 14.3 per cent.
These were three or four times higher than those in the least affected countries like Serbia 3.8 per cent, Moldova 4 per cent and Kazakhstan 4.7 per cent.
According to the UN agencies report, preterm birth is not just an issue in low and middle-income countries, but the data shows clearly that it affects families in all parts of the world.
The report further showed that rates of 10 per cent or higher occurred in some high-income countries such as Greece at 11.6 per cent and the United States of America 10 per cent.
“Maternal health risks, such as adolescent pregnancy, infections, poor nutrition, and pre-eclampsia, are closely linked to preterm births.
“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,” it stated.