By Sharon Atieno

Similar to other major trends related to maternal health, the world has been making slow progress in the reduction of preterm births over the last decade, a new report shows.

The report, National, regional, and global estimates of preterm birth in 2020, with trends from 2010: a systematic analysis, shows that the annual global rate of reduction in preterm births between 2010 and 2020 was just 0.14 percent.

Worse still, the report shows that of the 13.4 million children in the world born earlier than 37 weeks in 2020, sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia account for 65 percent of them.

The rates in the worst affected countries – Bangladesh, Malawi and Pakistan – are three or four times higher than those in the least affected countries – Serbia, Moldova and Kazakhstan.

Data shows that even some high-income countries are experiencing high rates including Greece and the United States of America which have rates as high as 10% or even more.

“These numbers show an urgent need for serious investment in services available to support them and their families as well as a greater focus on prevention – in particular, ensuring access to quality health care before and during every pregnancy,” Dr.  Ashu Banerjee, Director of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health and Ageing, World Health Organization (WHO) said.

Preterm birth is a global burden considered to be one of the main risk factors for neonatal mortality (aged under 5 years) and is associated with short-term and long-term effects, such as poor health and growth, intellectual and mental disabilities, and early onset of chronic diseases, among others.

According to the  WHO , maternal health risks, such as adolescent pregnancy, infections, poor nutrition, and pre-eclampsia, are closely linked to preterm births. Quality antenatal care is critical to detect and manage complications, to ensure accurate pregnancy dating through early ultrasound scans, and if needed, delay labour through approved treatments.

The report calls for continued commitment to strengthen data availability and quality, as well as data sharing so that appropriate support and action can be targeted where needed most.