Data collated by UNICEF found that in South Africa, eight out of every 100 babies are born prematurely (before 37 weeks of pregnancy). At 24th out of 184 countries, South Africa also ranks high in terms of the number of newborn deaths due to complications related to preterm birth. But, with the right kind of specialised care, starting within the first critical hour, and then continuing the care until they have grown and developed, preterm babies can go on to live healthy, prosperous lives.
Providing her comment on this ahead of World Prematurity Day on 17 November, is Aliné Hall, Clinical Quality Specialist: Child Health at Mediclinic Southern Africa.
As she explains: “Once the preterm baby is born there is a golden hour to assess and manage the immediate care the baby requires. This specialised care continues while the baby grows and overcomes many of the challenges a preterm baby faces. These interventions include breathing support, maintaining the baby’s temperature in an incubator, giving fluids and electrolytes intravenously and introducing mothers own expressed breast milk via a feeding tube. Our aim is to get the baby big and strong enough to go home to their families and to support the family through this journey.”
A global and national health issue
Currently, prematurity is the leading cause of death in children under the age of five, with an estimated 15 million babies born too early on a global scale, every year. Bringing this important cause a bit closer to home, Hall reports that Mediclinic Southern Africa currently admits between 2.500 and 3,000 preterm and sick newborns into its neonatal units every year. Mediclinic hospitals in Gauteng, Limpopo and Mbombela are currently the busiest provinces in the country in terms of obstetric services and neonatal admissions.
The most common complications associated with premature birth relate to the fact that preterm babies are often born with compromised immune systems, making them more prone to infections and sepsis. In addition, some of the most prevalent conditions facing a premature include breathing problems, retinopathy of prematurity (eye problems), neonatal jaundice and difficulties with feeding. The medical and support staff within Mediclinic’s neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) are trained to respond urgently to premature birth cases and intervene as early as possible, to prevent further complications.
A little goes a long way
“We also encourage as much skin-to-skin contact with mothers as possible, in cases where babies are born premature. In fact, research conducted by the World Health Organization has found that skin-to-skin contact or ‘kangaroo mother care’ as it has become known, is a highly effective method of reducing the onset of infection and conditions such as hypothermia.
This aligns with this year’s theme for World Prematurity Day, which is ‘small actions BIG IMPACT: immediate skin-to-skin care for every baby everywhere’. At Mediclinic, we are committed to taking such measures to improve outcomes for preterm babies and to provide their families with the best medical support possible,” she adds.
A global movement dedicated to preserving life
World Prematurity Day is an intercontinental movement, initiated by the European Foundation for the Care of Newborn Infants (EFCNI) and its partners, and has been observed around the world since 2008. In addition, South Africa is also a signatory to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, one of which is to reduce neonatal mortality, a large proportion of which is caused by premature birth.
As Hall concludes: “Many may be surprised to learn that seemingly small interventions like skin-to-skin contact can make a big difference and really turn the tide on some major health issues that often come with premature birth. We therefore deem it important for us as a healthcare sector leader in South Africa, to make a contribution to the cause and to raise awareness in any way we can, especially through the work we do in our NICUs across the country.
Our obstetric services are guided by a holistic approach that prioritises the health and wellbeing of both mother and their baby – both are equally important to us, to the families involved and to our communities as South Africans.”
Purple, which represents ‘sensitivity and exceptionality’ is the trademark colour of World Prematurity Day, observed in different ways throughout the world. In the coming weeks, South Africans are encouraged to do their part by wearing purple ribbons, supporting awareness drives and educational initiatives, and sharing their stories of hope on social media.