Premature Birth Ranked No. 1 Cause of Infant Death

November 21, 2014

Although babies have a lot of risks stacked against them given their young immune systems, something that, in some cases, could have been prevented, has been linked as the leading reason for infant death: premature birth.

According to a report published in The Lancet, a global health journal, researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and the World Health Organization studied child death causes from 2000 to 2013, in 194 countries. Results state that the leading reason of death, premature birth, causes death in over a million children under the age of five each year.

Premature pregnancy, also known as pre-term pregnancy, is defined as an infant born before the 38th week of gestation. Full-term pregnancies last anywhere from 38 to 40 weeks. This marks the first time that an infectious disease is not the leading cause of deaths in those under the 5 years of age.

Per Robert Black, the director of the Institute for International Programs at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and the co-author of the study, premature birth that leads to death is often associated with low-income families who receive poor medical care, especially in countries where neonatal intensive care units (NICU) are not available. In fact, the highest number of deaths stem from countries that lack advanced medical care. The countries with the highest premature death rates include West Africa, India, Pakistan, and Nigeria.

However, in some instances, premature birth could have been prevented with the proper medical care provided by physicians themselves. For instance, there are generally warnings signs that indicate there is a heightened risk for premature birth, including:

Physicians must closely monitor mothers with the aforementioned issues, as managing and treating these conditions can help prolong the pregnancy until full-term. When healthcare providers fail to diagnose and treat these issues, not only is pre-term birth a risk, but a host of other health problems can arise. For instance, premature babies are more susceptible to:

  • Delayed physical development
  • Delayed cognitive development
  • A heightened risk of asthma and bronchiopulmonary dysplacia (BPD)
  • Intestinal problems
  • Visual problems
  • Hearing loss
  • Delayed tooth loss

Furthermore, there are several indications that a mother is starting preterm labor. Yet, if the doctor recognizes the signs and reacts in time, there is a chance the labor can be stopped. Warning signs of premature labor include:

  • Cramps that mimic menstrual cramps
  • Dull pain in the lower back
  • Contractions spread out by around 10 minutes
  • Pelvic pressure
  • Vaginal bleeding
  • Less movement or lack of movement by the infant

Meanwhile, Black suggests that mothers who lack the necessary medical equipment to help their infants should improve nutrition as much as possible, stop smoking (if applicable), and practice “kangaroo mother care.” Kangaroo mother care is provides thermal care to the infant by offering warmth from the mother’s body heat, which can be done via breast feeding and holding the baby close. Both breastfeeding and thermal care have been linked with reducing the chances of infant death.