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Fewer Babies Die, but Many Suffer Long-Term Health Problems

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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premature infant

Premature infant; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/ceejayoz

Infant mortality is at its lowest rate ever. Now fewer than three percent of babies worldwide die within the first five weeks of life, which is surely cause for celebration.

Many of the infants who have been saved, however, did not enter this world easily. A new analysis published online Thursday in The Lancet found that babies who were pre-term, delivered to mothers with infectious diseases, or had other complications had a 39 percent chance of having at least one type of cognitive or physical impairment.

The new analysis examined data from 153 previous studies to find data on 22,161 babies who had survived a complicated pregnancy or birth. Of the 39 percent of those children who suffered some impairment from the birthing process, 59 percent ended up with learning difficulties or developmental delays and 21 percent had cerebral palsy. “These impairments cause a major socioeconomic burden, especially in resource-poor countries,” the researchers note.

The problem isn’t getting better. In the past four and a half decades, the frequency of long-term impairments for newborns who survive complications has remained about the same, according to the research team, which was led by Michael Mwaniki of Kenya Medical Research Institute’s Center for Geographic Medicine Research. The scientists suggest that improved medical technology has “increased survival in neonates who would have otherwise died,” which cancels out advances in treatment for less severe cases.

Even in wealthy countries where health care is widely available, complications during pregnancy increase the odds a child will have a chronic disease later in life. In middle- and lower-income countries, impairment of a child can mean “major burdens on families and societies, and shortened life expectancy,” the authors write.

But many of the tools, such as antenatal steroids, for improving the outlook for these children already exist. “Complications of preterm birth can be reduced by cost-effective interventions,” as can those from birthing trauma, according to the authors. Additional long-term support and rehabilitation can also help.

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. ASHIK 10:47 am 01/13/2012

    Absolutely true.Doctors always go for normal delivery.In cases of complications in birth or by patients request they go for sicerion.

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  2. 2. byronraum 12:42 pm 01/13/2012

    This has a sad echo in the fatalities in the Iraq war. There are many now who are injured, who would have died 20 years ago, are now alive but with loss of limbs or injuries equally horrific.

    It’s good to know these people are still alive, but it is also very obvious that medical technology with regards to repair also needs to improve significantly.

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  3. 3. alan6302 1:21 pm 01/13/2012

    If a baby dies from vaccine, the cops can always make up crap like ” shaken baby syndrome ” etc

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  4. 4. jstaf 11:46 am 01/16/2012

    Out healthcare system has developed the ability to preserve life in the beginning through neonatal advancements, and to extend life at the end with geriatric medicine. book ending our lives with extensive medical procedures and huge bills.

    As the article mentions these procedures create a large socio-economic burden on society, which has evolved to provide a fairness to quality of life over thousands of years.

    There are those who say no one is entitled to care from the government but the facts show that we rarely get to choose when and from who we will need help, so we build the recently vilified safety nets that have become too expensive to provide through the current business models, especially the US and it’s bizarre public sector health care that operates a for profit industry backed by tax payer, similar to banking.

    There should be no mystery as to why so many of the US’s problems going forward are in those two bastardized segments of the economy, a symbol of Free Market Mania run wild.

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  5. 5. poihths 8:35 pm 01/16/2012

    Somehow, we never manage to think things through, do we? We do a great job of keeping lots of infants alive, and only then, when we begin to notice that our very success is creating problems, do we start to think about how to deal with the consequences of that.

    We really do need to make it a habit and a best practice to think beyond step 1 to step 2, 3, etc.

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  6. 6. bucketofsquid 9:46 am 01/18/2012

    alan6302 is clearly delusional and a conspiracy nut. Cops don’t make up shaken baby syndrome. The very real physical damage it causes is well documented. It is possible that a police officer may mistakenly make that assessment but an autopsy will be pretty certain in its results. In areas that can’t afford a certified and trained coroner, well, stop being so stinking cheap and stupid and pay your taxes.

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  7. 7. bucketofsquid 9:53 am 01/18/2012

    Better to live a damaged life than to die a perfect genius.

    With universal healthcare that isn’t motivated by profits, we can do like Germany and provide a higher quality of life for less taxes. I always thought that good fiscal policy was a strong conservative value. Guess I was wrong.

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  8. 8. Diadora 6:17 am 01/23/2012

    Firstly can you please provide with the source of information: where did you read about these 3%?
    Secondly I wouldn’t say that we can count these % in this way. I thing it is not apropriate to compare infant mortality among children of Africa and USA.

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