Nearly 12% or about 500,000 babies in the United States are premature. This means that they are born before the mother is 37 weeks pregnant. Normal pregnancies last about 40 weeks.
While we have learned a lot about how to care for premature babies in neonatal intensive care units, pre-maturity still means serious complications for many newborns-cerebral palsy, retardation, blindness, deafness, and even death. Recent publications have shown a link between pre-maturity and lower IQ, learning difficulties, and chronic health problems.
This week, doctors from Wake Forest University announced that they have found a way to decrease the number of babies born too early. Around the country, 459 women at high risk for having a premature baby participated in this research. Researchers halted the study early because the treatment was so effective. They felt it was unethical not to provide the treatment to everyone who needed it.
What was the 'miracle' drug? It was progesterone. The hormone was given by injection to the women starting early in the pregnancy at week 16 to 20 and stopped at week 36. This prevented the onset of early labor and delivery. The benefit was obvious. There was a 34 percent reduction in the overall risk. There was an even larger reduction, 42 percent, in the number of births occurring before 32 weeks.
The treatment is to prevent early labor, not to stop labor once it has begun. Exactly how the hormone progesterone works is not yet know. Normally, progesterone is first made by the uterus and later by the placenta. Small studies had shown that this might be the case but this is the first large, well controlled study to show this value of the hormone.
High risk women are those who are expecting multiple births, those with certain types of infections, obesity, or those who have had previous early births. Some of the women in the study had previously had babies who died or suffered severe problems from being born much too soon.
In addition to the obvious health and emotional benefits of this research, there will be tremendous cost savings. Health care for the average newborn cost $4,300. For the premature baby, those costs rise to $58,000. Because many of these children will continue to have medical and developmental problems, the lifetime costs will be dramatically reduced.
While they do not understand the exact mechanism, the researchers feel that this is a beginning and it holds great promise for those parents who have suffered the heartbreak of dealing with a severely ill newborn.