Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Born Too Soon

herjua/iStockphoto

Credit: herjua/iStockphoto

By Sarah Robertson & Mark Hutchinson

Each year a million babies die after premature birth, but researchers have now identified a potential treatment.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Premature birth is defined as birth before 37 completed weeks of gestation. It is now identified by the World Health Organisation as the number one global killer of children under 5 years of age, with a high prevalence in Australia (8%) and even higher rates in many developing countries and the US, where up to 12% of babies are preterm. Every year around the world, 15 million babies are born prematurely and one million of those will die.

The proportion of pregnancies ending prematurely is escalating annually. Large cohort studies point to environmental causes such as infection, pollution, poor diet, stress and socio­economic status, but the underlying causes and the specific factors accounting for this rise in prevalence are unknown.

Modern post-natal health care now enables the survival of most preterm babies born after 32 weeks, but they are at higher risk of developmental problems and complications. Infants born early, especially those born less than 34 weeks gestation, are prone to cerebral palsy, mental retardation, visual impairment, hearing loss and less obvious central nervous system disorders, including language and learning disabilities, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and behavioural problems.

The average cost of neonatal care is estimated at more than A$50,000 for each preterm infant. The life-long economic health, psychological...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.