What is World Prematurity Day?

World Prematurity Day is observed on November 17 every year to raise awareness of premature birth and the concerns that premature babies and their families face globally. Every year, 15 million babies are born premature throughout the world. More than one million of these babies die, and many more face serious, lifelong health challenges.  

World Prematurity Day originated in Europe in 2008, and it has been celebrated around the world since 2011. In 2010, the March of Dimes joined the movement with a Prematurity Campaign that aims to reduce premature birth in the United States and to give every baby a fair chance for a healthy full-term birth. Since then, countless individuals and organizations from more than 100 countries have joined and committed to action each year to help address preterm birth and improve the situation for preterm babies and their families.  

A CAUSE TO FIGHT FOR 

A full-term pregnancy lasts approximately 40 weeks. Babies born between 37 and 42 weeks of gestation are considered full term, while babies born before 37 weeks gestation are considered premature. While not all premature babies experience complications, being born too early can lead to short-term and long-term health problems. Typically, the earlier a baby is born, the higher the risk of complications. Some complications may be apparent at birth, while others may not develop until later. 

Short-term complications 

In the first few weeks of baby’s life, complications may include: 

  • Breathing problemsAn immature respiratory system may cause the baby to have trouble breathing. If the baby’s lungs lack surfactant, a substance that allows lungs to expand, he or she may develop respiratory distress syndrome because the lungs cannot expand and contract normally. 
  • Heart problems: Patent ductus arteriosus (PDA) is the most common heart problem premature babies experience as well as low blood pressure. PDA is a persistent opening between the aorta and pulmonary artery. While this defect often closes on its own, it can lead to a heart murmur, heart failure as well as other complications. 
  • Brain problems: The earlier a baby is born, the greater the risk of bleeding in the brain, known as an intraventricular hemorrhage. Most hemorrhages are mild and heal on their own with little short-term impact, but some babies have larger brain bleeding that causes permanent brain damage.  
  • Other complicationsThese may include challenges related to temperature control, the gastrointestinal system, blood, metabolism and immune system function. 

Long-term complications 

In the long term, premature birth may lead to these complications: 

  • Cerebral PalsyCerebral palsy is a disorder of movement, muscle tone or posture that can be caused by an infection, inadequate blood flow or injury to a newborn’s developing brain, either early during pregnancy or while the baby is still young. 
  • Impaired learning: Premature babies are at a greater risk of lagging behind their full-term counterparts on various developmental milestones. When the child reaches school age, he or she may be more likely to have learning disabilities. 
  • Vision problemsPremature babies may develop retinopathy of prematurity, a disease that occurs when blood vessels swell and overgrow in the light-sensitive layer of nerves at the back of the eye. Sometimes the abnormal retinal vessels gradually scar the retina, pulling it out of position. When the retina is pulled away from the back of the eye, it’s called retinal detachment, a condition that, if undetected, can impair vision and cause blindness. 
  • Other problems: Other complications can affect hearingdental health, behavior and lead to  psychological problems and chronic health issues such as asthma. 

On World Prematurity Day, people from around the world come together through activities and events, sponsored by parent organizations, health systems, non-profits and more, to raise funds for these five areas: 

  • Research and discovery 
  • Care innovation and community engagement 
  • Advocacy 
  • Education 
  • Family-centered newborn intensive care units

In 2017, the March of Dimes formed the Prematurity Campaign Collaborative to address persistent health inequities and rising rate of premature birth in the U.S. You can learn more about the March of Dimes’ efforts to raise awareness for premature births and the concerns of premature babies and their families at marchofdimes.org. 

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Photo credit: Jana Richter

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