With World Prematurity Day 2023 upon us, it is essential to note that, in many cases, the cause of premature birth cannot be identified. However, in far too many cases, the causes are known, and prematurity is preventable. These factors include diabetes, infections, chronic high blood pressure, dietary deficiencies, multiple pregnancies, pregnancies too close together, and lack of appropriate healthcare.
And because of those known causes, on this day, it is time to raise awareness of the risk factors that lead to our globally intolerable rates of premature births and deaths. Recent data from WHO indicate that over 13 million babies were born prematurely, and nearly 1 million died. WHO further notes that almost 750,000 or about ¾ of those deaths were preventable. WHO’s Born too Soon reports that every two seconds a baby is born too soon and every 40 seconds one of these babies die. Those deaths were preventable with access to current cost-effective interventions and treatments – sadly, something that far too many babies in this world are denied.
But in raising awareness of the causes of premature births, we also must acknowledge that for many women, these risk factors and the consequences of premature births and deaths are indicators of economic precarity.
Acknowledging and addressing the role that economic inequity and instability play in premature births is necessary if we are to have any hope of significantly and permanently reducing rates of prematurity around the globe. To further underscore the role that economic inequity and instability play in premature births, we need to look at the data point that nearly 2/3 of premature births occur in Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
However, we would be remiss if we did not point out that prematurity and its harmful consequences are not confined to poor or economically fragile countries. Globally, in 2023, 1 in 10, or 10% of babies were born prematurely, and in the US for 2022, the March of Dimes estimates that for Black and Native American/Alaskan Native mothers, the premature birth rate was nearly 15%, and about 12%, respectively.
The aggregate and racial/ethnic data from the US is a vivid reminder that economic inequity, structural racism, the lack of value placed on the lives of women, the lack of access to healthcare, the role of pre-existing preventable conditions such as hypertension and diabetes, and overall nutritional deficiencies heap unacceptable morbidity and mortality consequences on the most vulnerable in society.
But World Prematurity Day also provides a reason to celebrate the work of healthcare providers, especially neonatal nurses. On this day, we must highlight and celebrate what we see and applaud every day. World Prematurity Day is also a time to highlight and celebrate the support of parents and health care professionals working in tandem, most especially neo-natal nurses, in the baby's best interest.
Today is a day to call special attention to what we, as neonatal nurses, attend to each day – identifying and mitigating adverse consequences that all too often result from premature births—highlighting the work necessary to ensure the health and well-being of the baby and the family.