According to the “Born Too Soon” report released by the United Nations agencies and partners recently, of every 10 babies born, 1 is preterm, and every 40 seconds, 1 of those babies dies. Produced by the WHO, UNICEF, in association with PMNCH – Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health and LSTM – Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine News, Born too soon: decade of action on preterm birth, sounds the alarm on what is a silent emergency of preterm births, long under-recognized in its scale and severity, which is impeding progress in improving the health and survival of children around the world.
As we commemorate the United Nations International Day of Families today, it is clear that action is needed urgently to improve the prevention of preterm birth, alongside better care for affected babies and their families, as 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. Preterm birth is now the leading cause of stillbirths and child deaths, accounting for more than 1 in 5 of all deaths of children occurring before their 5th birthday. Preterm survivors can face lifelong health consequences, with an increased likelihood of disability and developmental delays.
My The Wellbeing Foundation Africa and WBFA Midwives can heartfully attest that too often, where babies are born determines if they survive. The gaping inequalities related to ethnicity, reach, income, and access to quality care, alongside the impacts of conflict and climate change determine the likelihood of preterm birth, death, and disability. Sub-Saharan Africa has one of the highest rates of preterm birth, and preterm babies in this region face the highest mortality risk, with only 1 in 10 preterm babies surviving in low-income countries, compared to more than 9 in 10 in high-income countries.
By empowering our WBFA Midwives, we have witnessed first-hand through our Mamacare360 Programming that women who receive midwife-led continuity of care provided by professional and educated midwives, regulated to international standards are: 16% less likely to lose their baby and 24% less likely to experience preterm birth.
The WBFA-Medela Cares Lactation and Human Milk Initiative for mothers of infants in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit programme is a strategic initiative built and scaled on evidence-based best practices aimed at improving the use of Own Mothers Milk in the NICU led by our WBFA midwives. Breastfeeding is one of the most effective ways to ensure child health and survival because breastmilk provides all the energy and nutrients that the infant needs for the first months of life. Research has shown that 47% of the deaths of children under 5 years occur in the first 28 days of life, and these deaths are a result of preventable diseases that can be avoided through improved nutrition with the mother’s milk.
Yet, we still need a clear global agenda for action, which highlights country investment and healthcare worker and parent-led activism, to advocate for access to better care, policy change and more support. Measuring the impact of the WBFA and EWEC supported Every Newborn Action Plan 2014-2020, and the ongoing 2020-2025 WHO ENAP Agenda as IMNHC 2023 took place last week, I urge the health community to increase the mobilisation of resources, accelerate implementation, integrate across sectors, and drive local innovation and research.