When I had just started my pediatric residency, my first clinical rotation was in the neonatal intensive care unit. This was the same month my second child, Brandon, was born. I witnessed infants dying in their fathers' arms due to infections and premature birth, and couldn’t help but relate to the sense of loss and what it would mean to those families forever. I devoted my career at that point to understanding why tragedies like preterm birth happen, and set out to discover how to prevent them.
Premature birth happens every day—frequently with devastating consequences—and yet we know very little about the causes or how to prevent it. I was one of the broad array of experts who contributed to the recent report Born Too Soon: The Global Action Report on Preterm Birth, which featured the first-ever country-level estimates of preterm birth, and the statistics paint a grim picture.
Fifteen million babies are born too soon every year, 1.1 million of those babies die soon after birth, and preterm birth rates have risen in almost every country with reliable data. Preterm birth is now the second-leading cause of death for children under 5 worldwide.
Premature birth happens every day—frequently with devastating consequences—and yet we know very little about the causes or how to prevent it.
As efforts move forward to improve care of premature babies, so must efforts to prevent preterm births from occurring. Unfortunately, known prevention measures are not sufficient to have considerable impact on reducing the burden of preterm birth. Even if every known intervention was implemented on a global scale, only about 8 percent of premature births would be prevented, which means there would still be 13.8 million babies born too soon every year.
And yet, I’m encouraged by the report because it shines a light on this global crisis and will hopefully prompt new research and discovery. There have been positive steps taken in the last year, including the Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth (GAPPS) receiving a $20 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to fund the Preventing Preterm Birth initiative. This program will fund scientific projects worldwide to discover mechanisms that lead to preterm birth and ultimately novel interventions to prevent them.
GAPPS has also launched the GAPPS Repository, an internationally-accessible biorepository of pregnancy specimens and linked data. This is the first time that specimens paired with information about mothers and their pregnancies have been made widely accessible, and will help researchers discover new ways of identifying women at risk for preterm birth.
In the past two decades, the world has faced other complex global health threats, such as malaria and HIV. We have witnessed how global commitment and investment in discovery and innovation moves the needle and saves millions of lives. Now, we too have the opportunity to lead a collaborative, global effort to accelerate innovative research and interventions to help make every birth a healthy birth.