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Beyond health: Climate change & air pollution impact preterm birth rates

Beyond health: Climate change & air pollution impact preterm birth rates

In a new report titled “Born Too Soon: Decade of Action on Preterm Birth”, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have sounded the alarm on the global crisis of little-recognized preterm birth.

Alarming rates: premature birth and infant mortality

The report reveals that preterm birth rates have remained unchanged over the past decade in all regions of the world. Shockingly, every two seconds, a baby is born prematurely, while every 40 seconds, one of those babies dies.

Adding to the seriousness of the problem is the inequitable coverage and the challenges faced by the most vulnerable populations. Approximately 1 in 10 premature babies are born in the ten most fragile countries affected by humanitarian crises, where accessing adequate care is particularly difficult.

Professor Bo Jacobsson, Director of FIGO Maternal and Newborn Health Division, emphasizes the role of health professionals in multi-stakeholder efforts to prevent preterm birth and ensure women and families receive high-quality care and person-centred. The joint statement calls on governments to support these efforts and invest in strengthening the health workforce to ensure comprehensive and respectful care that reaches all mothers and families.

Global disparities in preterm birth

Preterm birth is now the leading cause of infant death, accounting for more than 20% of all deaths before the age of five. Survivors of preterm birth often face lifelong health consequences and increased risks of disability and developmental delays.

Alarmingly, only 1 in 10 extremely premature babies (<28 weeks) survive in low-income countries, compared to more than 9 in 10 in high-income countries. These glaring disparities are rooted in race, ethnicity, income, and access to quality care, even in high-income countries.

South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa have the highest rates of preterm birth, with more than 65% of preterm births in these regions. Premature babies in these areas face the highest risk of mortality. The report also highlights the combined effects of conflict, climate change, environmental damage, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the rising cost of living, which further increase the risks for women and babies around the world. For example, it is estimated that air pollution contributes to six million premature births a year.

Preterm Birth: Preventable and Devastating

Dr. Chandrakant Laharia, a public health expert interviewed by The New Indian Express, a significant number of preterm births can be prevented through appropriate scientific medical interventions.

He said that risk factors such as inadequate or late medical care during pregnancy, high blood pressure, obesity and being underweight are more prevalent in low- and middle-income countries, which also report the highest number of deaths related to preterm birth.

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