More premature babies born at 24 weeks are surviving – but the number living with disabilities will also rise
Rising numbers of babies born very early are surviving thanks to medical advancesBut no improvement over the last decade for those born before 24 weeks – the current limit for abortionSignificant survival improvements only among babies born at 24, 25 and 26 weeks, say British researchers
08:45 GMT, 5 December 2012
More premature babies born when their mothers are just 24 weeks pregnant are surviving – but babies delivered earlier rarely live, say British researchers.
A new study found no improvement in the proportion of babies born 22-25 weeks who experience serious health problems into childhood.
The figures suggest that while rising numbers of babies born very early are being helped to survive, the number of children and adults with long-term disability as a result will also increase.
More premature babies born when their mothers are just 24 weeks pregnant are surviving – but babies delivered earlier rarely live
New research funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) appears to find a cut-off point in terms of chances of survival at 24 weeks – the current legal limit for abortion.
Two studies, led by University College London and Queen Mary, University of London, compared a group of babies born between 22-26 weeks’ gestation in 2006 with those born between 22-25 weeks over a 10-month period in 1995.
The normal length of pregnancy is 40 weeks. Some anti-abortion campaigners have argued that medical advances which increase the chances of very premature babies surviving bolster their demands for a cut in the time limit.
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt, speaking in a personal capacity, backs a reduction in the time limit from 24 to 12 weeks, while Maria Miller, the culture secretary and minister for women, wants a 20-week limit to ‘reflect the way medical science has moved on.’
However, the latest study in the British Medical Journal found significant survival improvements only among babies born at 24, 25 and 26 weeks.
It found the number of babies born at 22-25 weeks and admitted to intensive care increased by 44 per cent over the 11-year period of the study.
The research appears to find a cut-off point in terms of chances of survival at 24 weeks – the current legal limit for abortion
Overall survival increased by 13 per cent – from 40 to 53 per cent – but there was no significant increase in survival of babies born before 24 weeks.
Altogether 11 per cent more babies
survived to the age of three without disability, but the proportion of
survivors born between 22 and 25 weeks with severe disability was about
the same at one in five.
Babies born before 27 weeks face a
battle for survival and many go on to live with long-term health
problems such as lung conditions, learning difficulties and cerebral
The rates of premature birth are on the rise in many European countries and are high in the UK, for reasons including a higher proportion of older mothers.
Doctors have also changed the way they treat premature babies, such as keeping them warmer and using steroids to boost lung development.
Study author Professor Kate Costeloe, from Queen Mary, University of London and Homerton University Hospital, said the number of babies surviving before 24 weeks was ‘small to vanishingly small’.
She told The Times: 'In 2006 if you were alive at the end of the first week you would have no greater chance of going home than you would if you'd been alive at the end of the first week in 1995.'
Professor Neil Marlow, an MRC-funded researcher from the UCL Institute for Women’s Health and an author of both studies, said ethical guidelines in the UK on the care of very premature infants did not suggest providing active care for babies born at 22 weeks six days and earlier.
On rare occasions babies born this early survived, he said, but it could be unclear exactly what the length of gestation was.
Very premature babies born around 24 weeks go to neonatal intensive care units, although their parents often opt for withdrawal of care at some point when the medical outlook for the child worsens.
He added:’Our findings show that more babies now survive being born too soon than ever before, which is testament to the highly-skilled and dedicated staff in our neonatal services.
‘But as the number of children that survive pre-term birth continues to rise, so will the number who experience disability throughout their lives.
‘This is likely to have an impact on the demand for health, education and social care services.’
Jane Brewin, Chief Executive of Tommy’s charity, said ‘Although it is good to see that survival rates of babies born at 22-25 weeks are increasing, this study highlights that we are still faced with the huge challenge of reducing the long term health problems that these extremely premature babies face – and so to really tackle this, we now need to focus on finding out why preterm birth happens.
‘That’s why Tommy’s goal is to develop effective screening tests and treatments so we can prevent premature birth from happening in the first place.’