Half of premature births could be prevented

Pioneering research has unlocked a possible prevention for up to half of all premature births, the biggest cause of death for children under five worldwide. Scientists from Genesis Research Trust, the charity that leads medical research into why and how things can go wrong with conception, pregnancy and birth, has found a way to better diagnose, track and treat one of the major causes of prematurity.

Prematurity is the biggest cause of the death of infants worldwide.  It also results in many babies being brain-damaged or severely disabled in adult life. Care of premature babies in an incubator costs several thousand pounds a day and this test could save the NHS millions of pounds each year.

Genesis scientists recently discovered a technique that allows for simple and quick testing of pregnant women to see if they have potentially harmful bacteria in their reproductive tract. Evidence suggests that infection of the reproductive tract by harmful bacteria – a condition which produces no symptoms – is a cause for up to half of premature births.

The quick and painless swab test identifies those women carrying these bacteria at a routine check-up. They can then be treated if needed. Researchers at Genesis Research Trust are also pioneering a new remedy. Rather than killing these bacteria with antibiotics, they replace the dangerous microbes with harmless ones. This promotes ‘good’ bacteria, avoiding unnecessary drugs in pregnancy. A recent study supported by the Trust showed that indiscriminate use of antibiotics in women whose waters break early in pregnancy actually kills “good” bacteria and allows growth of harmful bacteria in some women.

The findings were recently presented to international experts and awarded two prizes at the Meeting of the Society of Reproductive Investigation in San Diego, USA and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists World Congress in Singapore.

60,000 premature babies are born every year in the UK. Despite various advances, the incidence of premature births still remains just as high. As well as being the leading cause of death for children under five, premature babies, those born before 37 weeks, are at risk of life-long health issues. In the UK, premature birth complications account for 1,400 child deaths a year – more than double the number in France or Italy. Worldwide the number is estimated at one million annually. This new technique is set to reduce these numbers dramatically.

Doctor David MacIntyre, leading this research at Genesis Research Trust, said:
“The possibility of reducing the number of babies born prematurely is a major breakthrough. Whilst studies are continuing, the test we have developed is quick, simple and has every potential of being adopted into mainstream medicine in the UK and beyond. Doing so will not only enable more parents to hold a healthy happy child of their own, but will also reduce costs to the health system due to fewer babies being born with life limiting conditions to treat and manage.”

Despite the suffering that infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth and birth defects cause, they are all too often hidden issues, causing sadness and despair behind closed doors. Perhaps that’s why, out of every £100 given to medical research in the UK, only 20p is given to advancing understanding of conception, pregnancy and birth. New figures from Genesis Research Trust show how few people are aware of the serious complications a premature birth can have on a child’s health; nor do they realise that the reasons for prematurity often remain unknown or go undetected.

Professor Robert Winston, chair of Genesis Research Trust, commented:
“Genesis Research Trust works with world-class scientists and doctors to carry out research that we believe will make the most difference to the millions of people in the UK who are struggling to become parents. Our supporters have given us funding which has allowed for discoveries like the one we’re talking about today. But, it’s also clear that the general public simply isn’t aware of how much more work there is still left to do in this area. We believe that with more funding we can not only support those who are suffering the pain of being unable to have their own child, but also reduce the number of children who die after premature birth.”

You can download the original paper here or you can read it online on BMC Medicine

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