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Pre-mature Birth Explosion Linked to Mothers' Life Style

Mothers' lifestyles linked to explosion in premature births

AN "ALARMING increase" in the premature births is being recorded across Europe and doctors believe that women's lifestyles may be to blame.

Researchers say it is difficult to explain the rise but obesity, smoking and social class might be part of the problem. Very young and older mothers are also more likely to have a premature birth.

With premature babies at greater risk from a string of health problems immediately after birth and much later in life, experts have warned that the rise might have serious consequences for society as a whole and the NHS.

In Scotland, the number of premature babies - those born before 37 weeks - increased from 3,809 in 1976 to 4,275 in 2004, even though the total birth rate has been falling. One in every 12 births is now premature. The rise has been even greater elsewhere in Europe, with a study in Denmark, published in the British Medical Journal, recording that pre-term deliveries there increased by 22 per cent between 1995 and 2004.

Medical advances mean many more pre-term babies are surviving, with huge cost and health implications.
Professor Andrew Shennan and Dr Susan Bewley, from St Thomas's Hospital in London, said research showed that even among a group of low-risk European women aged 20 to 40, there had been a 51 per cent increase in early delivery in the past decade. "This is alarming, and implies that clinicians have failed to have any impact on reducing rates," they said.

"Untangling the underlying causative factors may be difficult, but general public-health measures to do with smoking, teenage and middle-aged pregnancy, prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, obesity and social inequities are a good start."

The research also linked fertility treatment, multiple pregnancies and elective, early deliveries to the increase in early births. The researchers said that rising rates of pre-term births had "worrying" implications for doctors, health economists, teachers, parents and the children themselves.

Prof Shennan and Dr Bewley said that pre-term deliveries on average accounted for fewer than one in ten births. But these births accounted for 75 per cent of neonatal deaths and most admissions to special care units. One in four babies born at less than 25 weeks had severe mental or physical disabilities, while those born at less than 28 weeks spend 85 times longer in hospital in their first five years than full-term babies.

Even after 32 weeks' gestation, educational and behavioural problems occurred in one out of three youngsters by the age of seven, they said.

Charlotte Davies, of the baby charity Tommy's, said: "We know that there are more premature babies being born now than in the past. More premature babies are also now being kept alive than were previously. But this has long-term health implications because these children often suffer problems when they are much older. Not only is there the stress and strain at the point of birth and during the time in special care, but there are the long-term effects on society and the health costs as well."

Ms Davies said more work was urgently needed to tackle the problem. "The more we know about the causes, the more we can do to prevent premature births," she said. "We know there are some lifestyle factors that put people at a higher risk, with smoking being the biggest preventable cause of premature births."

Jo Hunt, from the charity Action Medical Research, said more money was urgently needed for research into how premature births could be prevented.

She said the UK government was spending just £6 million a year on such work, while several hundred million was spent on treating babies born too early. "We are asking for the money to be doubled," Ms Hunt said.

Emily Robinson, of the premature babies charity Bliss, said: "One of the main reasons we are seeing a rise in premature births is improving medical care, which means babies who would have died 20 years ago are now surviving and are going on to have a good quality of life.

"While this is good news, we need to make sure the NHS is increasing the resources put into neonatal care to make sure we can cope."

The number of babies born too early worldwide is rising, with more newborns being kept alive because of medical advances. But doctors writing in the BMJ highlighted the high cost - in terms of health and finances - linked to growing numbers of premature babies.


Last Updated ( Apr 23, 2006 at 03:50 AM )