Child health experts from organisations including the World Health Organization and Save the Children have warned more research is needed to find out how to reduce the number of babies born early.

Prematurity is the second most common cause of death for children aged five or under.

After calculating that measures such as stopping multiple IVF pregnancies would only impact this figure by 5%, the group led by researchers from the University of Edinburgh (UEd) concluded "reasons for many early births remain unknown and much more research is needed".

Writing in the Lancet journal, Jane Norman and Andrew Shennan, of Tommy's Centre for Maternal and Fetal Health, at UEd, said: "Until considerable strides have been made in our understanding of how, why and when preterm births occur, and the effects that this has on both mother and baby, preterm births will remain a major public health problem, from which no country in the world is immune."

An estimated 1.1 million premature babies die each year. Most are born just a few weeks early in developing countries, where they die from a lack of simple care.

But the group of experts, which also included the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine believe developed countries can also cut rates.

They propose five key measures be implemented in developped countries:

- Banning smoking

- Promoting single pregnancies in IVF treatments

- Reducing planned Caesarean sections 

- Providing progesterone supplements to women with high-risk pregnancies

- Cervical stitches for women with a "weak" cervix that could mean a baby does not go to term.

If all these were implemented, the researchers suggest premature birth could be prevented for 58,000 babies.

Issuing their call in advance as part World Prematurity Week on [17-24 Nov], the experts say the reductions - which could be achieved by 2015, would vary from 8% in the US to much smaller reductions in most European countries, and only 2% in the UK.

Dr Joy Lawn of charity Save the Children added: "Our analysis shows that the current potential for preterm birth prevention is shockingly small.

"Our hope is that the proposed target of a 5% relative reduction in preterm births in high income countries will motivate immediate programme action, and the 95% knowledge gap will motivate immediate, strategic research.

"Research should also focus on preterm birth causes and solutions in low income countries where preterm birth rates are highest and the underlying causes may be much simpler to address."

Posted 23/11/2012 by richard.hook@pavpub.com