“Baby born at 1 pound now a thriving 5-year-old”  “Barely over a pound when born, miracle baby will go home”  These are just two of the headlines that have crossed the wires in the past week.  And while they convey the hope and possibilities now available to babies born too soon in the developed world, they fail to paint an accurate picture of premature birth.

Premature birth has become the second leading cause of death in children under the age of five, killing 1.1 million infants worldwide.  In the United States and other developed countries, medical interventions are able to save many preterm babies, resulting in the “miracle baby” stories we see each week.  The story that’s rarely reported is that these babies often face a lifetime of disability that may include cerebral palsy, brain injury, or respiratory, vision, hearing, learning, and developmental problems.  The impact on families is huge; economic turmoil from medical bills, lost wages if a parent is needed full-time at-home to address the medical challenges, and emotional strain from managing the situation.

The risk of preterm birth is reduced when there is adequate space between pregnancies—two years seems optimal.  Smoking certainly contributes to preterm birth, and the best prevention strategy known is to stop smoking.  Preterm birth is far more likely with twins, triplets or more.  And, a woman who has had a preterm birth is more likely to have another.  Those women can be given hormones that will help delay those subsequent births.  But, beyond that, scientists know very little about the causes of preterm birth.  In fact, if every known intervention were implemented around the world, only 8% of preterm births would be averted, and 13.8 million babies would still be born too soon each year.

The Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth (GAPPS), an initiative of Seattle Children’s, is one of more than two dozen organizations releasing a global study of prematurity today.  Called Born Too Soon, this report includes the first-ever national, regional, and global estimates of preterm birth.  It provides details on the best treatment options for preterm infants and articulates a road forward to address the treatment and prevention needs to end this problem.

Preterm birth is a complex global health problem that requires an interdisciplinary research approach.  Obstetricians, neonatologists, nutritionists, infectious diseases doctors, and others all need to work together to unravel the complex interrelated influences that lead to preterm birth.  Understanding the causes will create the opportunity to design interventions.  This knowledge can bring an end to babies being born too soon.

Dr. Craig Rubens is co-founder and executive director of GAPPS, a Seattle Children’s Hospital initiative. An internationally recognized infectious disease expert, Dr. Rubens leads GAPPS work in program development and strategic partnerships that leverage cross-disciplinary science to accelerate a discovery-to-delivery pipeline for preventing prematurity and stillbirth. He is also a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine, and the endowed chair of Pediatric Infectious Diseases sponsored by Seattle Children’s Hospital. He is a member of the Board of Scientific Counselors for the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases and has been a consultant and reviewer for the FDA, CDC and NIH.

If you’d like to arrange an interview with Dr. Rubens, please contact Children’s PR team at 206-987-4500 or press@seattlechildrens.org.