Premature birth report 'optimistic'
China has a long way to go before it achieves the standard recommended by the World Health Organisation last week in its first country-by-country report on premature births, a leading neonatal care expert says.
Dr Chen Chao, director of the neonatology department at Fudan University's Children's Hospital, also questioned whether the report's figures on China were too optimistic.
The WHO estimated 7.1 per cent of the country's babies are born too early, a figure Chen believes from his own surveys of 52 mainland hospitals to be closer to 10 per cent.
'The premature birth rate on the mainland has been rising steadily over the past two decades, the same trend as around the world, thanks to older women having babies, application of fertility drugs and infections,' Chen said. 'This rate will stay at this high level for the future in China and it's a mission impossible to reduce it significantly.'
Chen's figure would place China near the worldwide average estimated by WHO of one in 10 babies born before reaching full term. As it is, the report, Born Too Soon, ranked China 154th - with first being the worst - of 184 countries surveyed, between Chile and Russia. More than half of the estimated 15 million premature births each year were in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
About three-quarters of those who die could survive without expensive care if a few proven and inexpensive treatments were available .
'People tend to associate preterm with high-cost intensive care services which would be challenging to poor countries, but a whole menu of effective, inexpensive services are available and work to save most of these lives,' said Dr Carole Presern, a midwife who has delivered babies in remote areas of Asia and heads the WHO's Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health.
One method suggested by the report is 'kangaroo care', during which a newborns are held skin-to-skin against their mothers' chests. This method, which provides warmth, maternal supervision and makes frequent breastfeeding easier, could save the lives of 450,000 babies a year, the report found.
This method had been used only rarely in China, due in part to the cramped space of most of the country's neonatal wards, Chen said.
'There are only incubators and no beds for mothers,' he said. 'Therefore it's impossible to carry out kangaroo care and the saving and caring for premature babies are not so effective as the practices in advanced countries.'
Premature birth is defined as birth that occurs before this many weeks in the womb