An Opportunity to Reduce Premature Births

June 2014
David Vlahov

Premature birth is a major public health problem. According to Born Too Soon – a 2012 report co-produced by the March of Dimes, The Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health, Save the Children and the World Health Organization – worldwide, approximately 15 million babies are born prematurely each year. More than 1 million of these infants die due to complications of prematurity. Prematurity is the leading cause of death for babies in the first four weeks of life, and second behind pneumonia for all children less than 5 years old. Moreover, many survivors face a lifetime of disability, including learning disabilities, vision problems and hearing loss. Even more disturbing, trend data from 65 countries show rates of preterm birth rising in most countries around the world, rich and poor.

However, as the report notes in its executive summary, premature babies can be saved if one considers that, “Inequalities in survival rates around the world are stark: half of the babies born at 24 weeks (four months early) survive in high-income countries, but in low-income settings half the babies born at 32 weeks (two months early) continue to die due to a lack of feasible, cost-effective care, such as warmth, breastfeeding support, and basic care for infections and breathing difficulties. Over the last decade, some countries have halved deaths due to preterm birth by ensuring frontline workers were skilled in care of premature babies and improving supplies of life-saving commodities and equipment.”

UC San Francisco recently received a grant to address this global problem: a combined commitment of $100 million from Lynne and Marc Benioff and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The funding is to address prematurity risks, education, prevention and treatment in both the wealthy and less wealthy nations. We are proud to share that the School of Nursing played an important role in preparing the proposal and that we are now contributing interprofessional leadership for the planning year that has already begun. Linda Franck, chair and professor of Family Health Care Nursing, is one of the planning-year deputy directors, representing a department that includes nurse-midwives, neonatal intensive care clinical specialists and pediatric and family nurse practitioners. Professor Emerita Sally Rankin has been a key link between the School’s global health nursing program and UCSF Global Health Sciences. I am proud to serve on the project’s Internal Advisory Board.

This is timely, essential work. The research on factors associated with the incidence of prematurity, prevention methods and treatment is incomplete. Over the next decade, this project will frame and address key unanswered questions, taking advantage of a unique opportunity to generate ideas that are both transdisciplinary and transformative. We look forward to joining forces with colleagues from many disciplines to reduce the burden of preterm birth worldwide.

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