Premature birth and its complications are the leading cause of death among children under five years of age across the world. In the UK alone, around 61,000 babies are born prematurely each year and tragically more than 1,000 of these babies die. For those who survive, premature birth can cause a lifetime of disability which can include cerebral palsy, blindness and learning difficulties. Whilst some things are known to increase a woman’s chances of giving birth too soon, many early births remain unexplained.
In the UK up to six per cent of pregnant women develop a mild form of pre-eclampsia. Severe pre-eclampsia occurs in around one to two per cent of pregnancies, putting the lives of both mothers and babies at risk. And sadly, an estimated 1,000 babies die each year because of pre-eclampsia.
There is no way to halt the progression of the illness, so babies often have to be delivered prematurely in an attempt to save their mother’s life and their own.
Women with the most severe disease can suffer high blood pressure, convulsions, strokes, liver and kidney failure, and life-threatening bleeds. In the UK, the most serious symptoms are rare, but worldwide the condition remains a major cause of death in mothers.
Treatment can help tackle some symptoms, lowering blood pressure and reducing the risk of convulsions. However, it does not slow the underlying progression of the disease and more research is urgently needed to help improve understanding and develop treatments that could ultimately save lives.
Necrotising Enterocolitis (NEC)
Necrotising enterocolitis (NEC) is a devastating bowel disorder that mainly strikes premature babies. Each year in the UK, hundreds of babies develop necrotising enterocolitis. Sadly, up to 35 per cent of these babies die.
Doctors and nurses must be constantly on the lookout for symptoms of NEC, as premature babies in neonatal units can develop the disease at any time, with little or no warning. Difficulties with diagnosis mean NEC is often identified late, when a baby is already extremely ill. No test can reliably identify babies in the early stages of the disease.
Babies who develop NEC can need emergency surgery to remove damaged parts of their intestines. Up to half of babies who survive the disease develop long term health problems.
NEC remains a threat to premature babies. Improved diagnosis and treatment are urgently needed.
Estimates suggest around 700,000 of the world’s babies die or develop disabilities each year because of a condition called neonatal encephalopathy (NE), which can leave the brain permanently damaged. Often caused by a shortage of oxygen to the brain, NE puts a baby’s life in immediate danger.
Action funded research that led to clinical trials of cooling therapy has revolutionised the treatment of babies with NE and it is now routine in the UK. Cooling a baby’s temperature down for three days after birth gives them a better chance of surviving and escaping disability. Sadly though, this doesn’t save all babies. Experience in the UK suggests more than 40 per cent of these babies still die or develop a lifelong disability. We urgently need new treatments that work with cooling to improve babies’ chances.
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