New Delhi: As many as 152 million babies were born too soon in the world over the last decade. In the pandemic year of 2020, that number was 13.4 million.
That year, India was among the top five countries where babies were born too soon, or preterm – babies born alive before 37 weeks of pregnancy (as opposed to full-term pregnancy that runs to at least 39 weeks) – as per a United Nations-backed report published May 10.
India was at the fourth position in terms of preterm birth rates in 2020. Almost half (45%) of all preterm babies in that year were born in just five countries: India, Pakistan, Nigeria, China and Ethiopia.
Preterm births are a huge health concern: it is the leading cause of child mortality worldwide, accounting for nearly one in five deaths of children under five years of age. Studies also show that adult survivors of preterm births face increased risks of chronic disorders, including psychiatric and cardiovascular disorders.
Highest estimated preterm birth numbers in 2020
India witnessed the highest estimated preterm birth numbers during 2020, at 30.16 lakh, said a report titled Born Too Soon: Decade of Action on Preterm Birth. Findings and Actions, produced by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund with Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health. The report is authored by more than 140 individuals from 46 countries.
India was followed by Pakistan (far behind at 9.14 lakh), Nigeria (7.74 lakh), China (7.52 lakh) and Ethiopia (4.95 lakh).
As per a press release, the report includes “updated estimates” from WHO and UNICEF, prepared with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, on the prevalence of preterm births.
The birth rate of preterm babies in India is 13. Bangladesh, however, leads this list, with a birth rate of 16.2, followed by Malawi (14.5) and Pakistan (14.4).
However, as mentioned earlier, India had the highest estimated preterm birth numbers during 2020, at 30,16,700.
In 2020, South Asia (13.2%) and sub-Saharan Africa (10.1%) accounted for over 65% of preterm births globally. These regions have also not seen any measurable change in preterm birth rates in the past decade, per the report.
Globally, the report estimates that nearly one million newborns died due to complications of preterm birth in 2020. That’s one baby every 40 seconds.
The report also found that preterm birth rates have not changed in any region in the world in the past decade, with 152 million vulnerable babies born too soon from 2010 to 2020. The global preterm birth rate was 9.9% in 2020, compared to 9.8% in 2010, it said.
COVID-19, climate change are factors
The “four Cs” are further adding to the issue of preterm births, the report noted. Conflict, climate change, COVID-19 and the cost-of-living crisis “heighten threats for the most vulnerable women and babies in all countries”, it said.
“Ensuring quality care for these tiniest, most vulnerable babies and their families is absolutely imperative for improving child health and survival,” said Anshu Banerjee, director for Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health and Ageing at WHO, in a PMNCH press release.
“Progress is also needed to help prevent preterm births – this means every woman must be able to access quality health services before and during pregnancy to identify and manage risks.”