Sexual and reproductive health

Improving preterm birth outcomes: WHO launches new guidance

A mother holds her sleeping newborn daughter wrapped securely against her for warmth.

24 August 2015 ¦ Every year, around 15 million babies are born preterm, that is to say born before 37 completed weeks of pregnancy. Complications of preterm birth are the leading cause of death amongst children under five years of age, responsible for nearly one million deaths in 2013. Without appropriate treatment, survivors of complications of preterm birth are at increased risk of lifelong disability and poor quality of life.

We can save many more babies with effective interventions. We must focus our efforts on how to improve the outcomes for babies that are born preterm.

Dr Femi Oladapo, Department of Reproductive Health and Research

New guidance

WHO’s new guidance WHO recommendations on interventions to improve preterm birth outcomes has been launched to help prevent the complications and consequences of preterm birth. Adding to efforts worldwide to further reduce child mortality, the guidance offers recommendations on interventions which can be provided to the mother when preterm birth is imminent and to the preterm infant after birth, with the aim of improving outcomes for preterm infants.

Key interventions

A set of key interventions are included in the new guidance, which can improve the chance of survival and health outcomes for preterm infants. It includes interventions provided to the mother – for example steroid injections before birth, antibiotics when her water breaks, and magnesium sulfate to prevent future neurological impairment of the child – as well as interventions for the baby – for example thermal care (keeping the baby warm), safe oxygen use, and use of surfactant (a specific medicine) to help infants breathe more easily.

View this video to see an overview of the key recommendations from the WHO guidelines by Dr Femi Oladapo, Department of Reproductive Health and Research.

These interventions are also identified in the renewed Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health, a 15-year roadmap for ending preventable deaths and improving the health of women, children and adolescents, to be launched in September 2015.

Latest evidence

In response to WHO Member States’ requests for guidance on controversial areas of practice, the new guidance is based on current research evidence and was prepared by an international group of experts from all WHO regions. The guidance updates the relevant sections of previous WHO publications such as Managing complications of pregnancy and childbirth: a guide for midwives and doctors (published in 2000) and Pocket book of hospital care for children (published in 2013).

Widely useful

The WHO recommendations on interventions to improve preterm birth outcomes will be useful for people working across the health sector, from health-care workers who directly provide care to pregnant women and preterm infants, to health-care policy makers and programmers, as well as those working on the development of job aids and training tools for health-care workers.

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