By Gabriel-Eddie Njoroge

A new research paper developed by experts from the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, published in the Lancet Global Health has shown that more than 20 million babies were born with low birth weight, less than 2500 grams or 5.5 pounds, in 2015.

This accounts for around one in seven of all births worldwide according to the study conducted, which provides the first ever estimates documenting this major health challenge.

For context, more than 80 percent of the world’s 2.5 million newborns who die every year are of low birth weight and those that do survive have a greater risk of stunting and developmental and physical ill health later in life that includes diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

“Low birth weight is a complex clinical entity composed of intrauterine growth restriction and preterm birth,” says co-author Dr. Mercedes de Onis from the Department of Nutrition at WHO, “This is why reducing low birth weight requires an understanding of the underlying causes in a given country. For example, in Southern Asia a large proportion of low birth weight babies are born at term but with intrauterine growth restriction, which is associated with maternal under nutrition, including maternal stunting.

“Conversely, preterm birth is the major contributor to low birth weight in settings with many adolescent pregnancies, high prevalence of infection, or where pregnancy is associated with high levels of fertility treatment and caesarean sections [like in USA and Brazil]. Understanding and tackling these underlying causes in high-burden countries should be a priority.”

The majority of the cases, close to three quarters, were born in Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa however, the problem also remains substantial in high income countries in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. Those countries, in the high income bracket, show virtually no progress in the area.

One of the ways specified that can tackle this public health problem and reduce the incidence of low birth weight is necessitating a comprehensive global strategy that must include improving maternal nutritional status; treating pregnancy-associated conditions such as pre-eclampsia, which is the hypertensive disease of pregnancy; and providing adequate maternal care, perinatal clinical services and social support.

Also providing affordable, accessible and appropriate healthcare is critical for preventing and treating low birth weight.

Reductions in death, illness and disability in newborn babies will only be achieved if pregnancy care is fully integrated with appropriate care for low birth weight babies.