Today marks World Prematurity Day, which raises awareness of preterm birth, accounting for more than one million deaths per year around the world
In the UK alone, pre-term birth leads to 1,400 child deaths a year – more than double the number in France or Italy, according to the study published in The Lancet.
READ: EATING JUNK FOOD BEFORE GETTING PREGNANT ‘RAISES RISK OF PREMATURE BIRTH’
Most of the deaths worldwide occur in Third World countries, with some of the highest rates in West Africa, where the risk is expected to be even greater now due to the outbreak of Ebola.
Since 2000, the worldwide mortality rate of children under-five has declined dramatically from 76 to 46 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2013.
Most of the success is due to the reduction of deaths from pneumonia, diarrhoea, measles, HIV and tetanus.
In contrast, preterm mortality rates have declined at only two per cent annually globally, and have slightly risen in the UK from 36 per cent to 38.7 per cent.
These figures are significant as for the first time neonatal conditions have overtaken infectious diseases such as pneumonia as the biggest childhood killer, according to the study.
READ: PREMATURE BIRTH: UNDERSTANDING THE RISKS AND SIGNS OF EARLY LABOUR
Any baby born before 37 weeks is considered premature, but serious problems are rare with babies born after 32 weeks.
Babies born before this point may need help with breathing, feeding and temperature control, and often spend many days in an incubator on a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
Obesity and later motherhood are among the risk factors for prematurity, as is the rise in the rate of Caesarean deliveries. However, many of the causes still remain unknown.
READ: BONDING WITH YOUR PREEMIE BABY: COPING WHEN YOUR NEWBORN’S IN A NEONATAL INTENSIVE CARE UNIT NICU
Prof Joy Lawn told the BBC: ‘Even very premature babies are surviving in the UK due to improvements in medical care.
‘But babies can spend an average of three months in intensive care. This is traumatic for families and many end up with long-term health complications. It is also hugely expensive for the NHS.’
‘The success we've seen in the ongoing fight against infectious diseases demonstrates that we can also be successful if we invest in prevention and care for preterm birth,’ she added.
The authors of the report claim that two thirds of these deaths could be prevented without intensive care.
'Kangaroo care', where babies are carried skin-to-skin on the mother's chest, is one simple technique, which is being promoted worldwide; helping breastfeeding and providing warmth.
Did you give birth prematurely? Let us know in the comment box below.