Fact Sheet – World Prematurity Day


World Prematurity Day is observed on November 17th each year. The subject of prematurity is currently a hot topic in Jamaica following the death of 19 preterm babies at the University Hospital of the West Indies and Cornwall Regional Hospital. The babies died due to outbreaks of klebsiella and serratia bacteria.

In the wake of the scandal, former Health Minister Dr Fenton Ferguson has been transferred and replaced by Horace Dalley. The regional health authorities responsible for the island’s hospitals and other health care facilities also released long-awaited audits highlighting major deficiencies in these facilities.

Below is a fact sheet on prematurity, with information from the World Health Organization, unless otherwise indicated:

  1. Preterm is defined as babies born alive before 37 weeks of pregnancy are completed. There are sub-categories of preterm birth, based on gestational age:
    • extremely preterm (less than 28 weeks)
    • very preterm (28 to 32 weeks)
    • moderate to late preterm (32 to 37 weeks).
  2. Preterm birth occurs for a variety of reasons. Most preterm births happen spontaneously, but some are due to early induction of labour or caesarean birth, whether for medical or non-medical reasons. Common causes of preterm birth include multiple pregnancies, infections and chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure; however, often no cause is identified. There could also be a genetic influence.
  3. Around 15 million babies are born prematurely each year – that is more than one in 10 babies born worldwide.
  4. Preterm birth complications are the leading cause of death among children under 5 years of age, responsible for nearly 1 million deaths in 2013.
  5. Almost 1 million children die each year due to complications of preterm birth. Many survivors face a lifetime of disability, including learning disabilities and visual and hearing problems.
  6. In low-income settings, half of the babies born at or below 32 weeks (2 months early) die due to a lack of feasible, cost-effective care, such as warmth, breastfeeding support, and basic care for infections and breathing difficulties. In high-income countries, almost all of these babies survive.
  7. Jamaica’s preterm birth rate is 10.2 per cent, which means that between 10-15 babies per 100 live births are preterm. This ranks us 92nd in the world (marchofdimes.com)
  8. More than three-quarters of premature babies can be saved with feasible, cost-effective care. This includes:
    • essential care during childbirth and in the postnatal period for every mother and baby,
    • antenatal steroid injections (given to pregnant women at risk of preterm labour and under set criteria to strengthen the babies’ lungs),
    • kangaroo mother care (the baby is carried by the mother with skin-to-skin contact and frequent breastfeeding) and
    • antibiotics to treat newborn infections.
  9. More than 60% of preterm births occur in Africa and South Asia.
  10. The 10 countries with the greatest number of preterm births are:
    • India: 3,519,100
    • China: 1,172,300
    • Nigeria: 773,600
    • Pakistan: 748,100
    • Indonesia: 675,700
    • The United States of America: 517,400
    • Bangladesh: 424,100
    • The Philippines: 348,900
    • The Democratic Republic of the Congo: 341,400
    • Brazil: 279,300
  11. The 10 countries with the highest rates of preterm birth per 100 live births are:
    • Malawi: 18.1 per 100
    • Comoros: 16.7
    • Congo: 16.7
    • Zimbabwe: 16.6
    • Equatorial Guinea: 16.5
    • Mozambique: 16.4
    • Gabon: 16.3
    • Pakistan: 15.8
    • Indonesia: 15.5
    • Mauritania: 15.4

The WHO is committed to reducing the health problems and lives lost as a result of preterm birth with the following specific actions:

  • working with Member States and partners to implement “Every Newborn: An Action Plan to End Preventable Deaths” adopted in May 2014 in the framework of the UN Secretary-General’s “Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health”;
  • working with Member States to strengthen the availability and quality of data on preterm births;
  • providing updated analyses of global preterm birth levels and trends every 3 to 5 years;
  • working with partners around the world to conduct research into the causes of preterm birth, and test effectiveness and delivery approaches for interventions to prevent preterm birth and treat babies that are born preterm;
  • regularly updating clinical guidelines for the management of pregnancy and mothers with preterm labour or at risk of preterm birth, and those on the care of preterm babies, including kangaroo mother care, feeding babies with low birth weight, treating infections and respiratory problems, and home-based follow-up care (see WHO 2015 recommendationson interventions to improve preterm outcomes); and
  • developing tools to improve health workers’ skills and assess the quality of care provided to preterm babies.

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