A baby step forward

There is a growing global health threat—something that is the leading cause of newborn death around the world, that takes the lives of more babies than HIV, tuberculosis and malaria combined, and that is just as likely to affect women in the United States as it is women in India or Bangladesh.

This threat costs the U.S. healthcare system more than $26 billion in expenditures each year, and results in families paying considerable emotional and financial costs.

And yet, medical science does not know enough about its causes in order to prevent it. Can you guess what it is? I think the answer will surprise you.

Premature birth.

An estimated 13 million babies are born prematurely every year. More than two million of those babies don’t survive their first year. Of the infants who do survive, many suffer related medical complications for the rest of their lives. When it comes to offering every expectant parent—whether living in New York or New Delhi—the opportunity to deliver a healthy baby, we are desperately off track.

Fortunately, there is hope and we are taking a baby step forward. This week, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced a new Grand Challenges in Global Health program – Preventing Preterm Birth. The Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth (GAPPS), an initiative of Seattle Children’s, was awarded a $20 million grant to lead a global effort to increase the chances of healthy pregnancies and births.

Advancements in treatment have improved the chances of survival for preterm infants, though it is simply not enough. There are currently only two known interventions to prevent or reduce chances of having a preterm birth: smoking cessation and progesterone therapy. Even if these were fully implemented around the world, the rate of preterm birth would decrease by less than 15%.

GAPPS is overseeing the quest for more evidence-based, interdisciplinary research to identify the causes and mechanisms of prematurity. Researchers, scientists and labs from around the world are invited to apply for funding to explore innovative prevention strategies. We believe the work will lead to new discoveries which will save millions of lives.

While one in eight pregnancies result in a preterm birth, today we are celebrating a new opportunity to work with scientists to reverse these odds.

For those of us working to improve maternal, newborn and child health, this is a tremendous and long-awaited step forward. Together, we can discover new solutions to ensure healthy births around the world. Watch the video below and find out more at www.gapps.org/healthybirth.

Craig E. Rubens, MD, PhD, is the co-founder and executive director of the Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth. He is the endowed chair of Pediatric Infectious Diseases sponsored by Seattle Children’s Hospital, and a professor of pediatrics and global health at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Photo: © Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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