15/11/2012 11:55 GMT | Updated 15/01/2013 05:12 GMT

World Prematurity Day - Why Does It Matter?

Tomorrow, Saturday 17 November, marks World Prematurity Day - a worldwide effort to highlight the 15million babies born too soon around the world each year, approximately 1million of which do not survive.

The definition of a 'premature' baby is one that is born before 37 and after 24 weeks gestation. There are different levels of prematurity and these carry their own risks, but generally the earlier the baby is born, the higher the risk of health problems.

What many people don't know is that preterm births are the leading cause of death in newborns globally. And each year in the UK, almost 60,000 babies are born too soon - putting them at risk of both short and longer-term health problems, even death, depending on how early they make their appearance.

In about 40% of cases, the woman's labour is triggered by an 'unknown cause' - showing we still have a lot to learn about premature birth. It rarely happens because of one single thing - often it is caused by a combination of different complex factors. Many mothers of premature babies tell us they suffer from feelings of terrible guilt, wondering what they did wrong and if they are to blame. The truth is that in the majority of cases there is nothing that a mother can do to prevent premature birth.

Some of the causes of premature birth are pregnancy complications such as pre-eclampsia or infection, or early rupture of the membranes - 'broken waters'. Medical research has also shown that lifestyle factors - such as smoking, poor diet, being overweight, and stress/anxiety - can be contributing factors. However we still don't know enough about the interplay of these and other environmental and social factors contributing to a heightened risk of preterm birth.

We hear so often from parents who have not had concrete answers as to why their baby came early. As the cause is often a mystery, no explanation can be given to the affected parents who are often dealing with very traumatic circumstances: spending weeks or months in a neonatal intensive care unit, not knowing if their baby will survive or not. If we don't understand what causes premature birth, we cannot get to the root of the problem. That is why more funding for research in to why premature birth happens remains so vital to reduce incidence rates, and to give parents the answers they need.

In May 2012, a global report on preterm birth showed that the numbers of preterm births are rising almost everywhere, including the UK. The report called for a strong research programme to identify risk factors clearly and understand how their interactions may lead to preterm birth, so women at risk can be screened and treated to prevent their babies arriving early.

For more research though, we need more funds - and this is what we do at Tommy's: raising money to fund three research centres across the UK which, amongst other things, are focused on finding out why premature birth happens. Our research priority is to develop effective screening tests and treatments so we can prevent premature birth. Just today we have announced results of a new test that can accurately predict whether a woman will give birth early, and therefore allow for appropriate intervention.

Improving awareness about lifestyle choices and the links to premature birth and pregnancy complications is also essential, so that we can support mothers to make the best lifestyle choices for them and their baby, and help reduce the risks of premature birth.

I think our biggest worry is complacency: even today, parents experiencing the loss of their baby - because it came too early, or for any other reason - are sometimes told "it's nature's way" or "you can always try again"... all of these things would be totally unacceptable to say to parents who have just lost a child, but are somehow still acceptable during pregnancy.

We want to make more people aware of the devastation it causes to families' lives and the need to improve our pregnancy care and outcomes - not only for humanitarian reasons but because it makes good economic sense: the cost of caring for babies born pre-term is £1billion a year to the UK economy. Babies born at full term are better able to contribute more fully to society, but more importantly, we believe each baby deserves the best possible start in life, and that means finding ways to help pregnancies go full term.

This World Prematurity Day, we hope that the plight of premature babies everywhere - not just in the UK - is put under the international spotlight. In the UK, we are fortunate that medical interventions for very early babies have improved significantly, so the key to saving babies lives over here now lies in preventing premature birth from happening in the first place.

Tommy's funds vital medical research into the causes and preventions of premature birth, stillbirth and miscarriage, and supports families affected by pregnancy complications or loss.

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