Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

When a Baby is Born Too Soon

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October 15, 2012

With 7 billion people on this planet today, it’s amazing how little we actually understand about pregnancy. We focus a lot on making labor and delivery safer, but we actually understand very little about the vast majority of the pregnancy period. Clearly this lack of understanding has not affected our ability to reproduce, but in many instances—about 15 million each year—a baby is born too soon before he or she has time enough to develop completely, before completing 37 weeks of development. And we don’t understand why.

Despite great advances in reducing maternal and child mortality in recent years, the estimated number of preterm births has stayed the same, including here in the United States.  A premature baby born in a place surrounded with sophisticated medical care and qualified staff can often survive those unreliable first few hours and days and go on to have a healthy and productive life. Sometimes a premature baby will have lifelong health complications such as asthma, cerebral palsy, and neuro-developmental delays.

In low- and middle-income countries a preterm baby has even less of a chance of survival, being born too early and far away from behavioral interventions, tools, and technologies that could save her life or prevent long-term impairment. More than a million of these preterm babies worldwide will die within their first month of life, making prematurity the second-leading cause of death for children around the world.

It’s absurd to think of the scale of this problem and our lack of means to prevent it. If we applied all we know about reducing risk of preterm birth, we would only avoid a small fraction of cases.

I believe it was Ben Franklin who said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

The Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth (GAPPS) is taking that old adage to heart and shifting the approach around prematurity. Today GAPPS, an initiative of Seattle Children’s, announced five innovative research projects that places the focus on prevention of premature births to shrink that knowledge gap. The projects are funded through the Preventing Preterm Birth Initiative, part of the Grand Challenges in Global Health. These researchers will dive into the questions of the causes of preterm birth and particularly how infections, inflammation and hormonal responses during pregnancy can negatively influence the development and delivery of a baby. With a focus on low- and middle-income countries, these efforts will translate research into action to bring new knowledge and solutions to the places that need them most.

It’s safe to say that Mr. Franklin would be proud of this new initiative, and so are we! 

 
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