Disability expected to rise as more premature babies survive

LONDON, Dec 5 (Reuters) - Little progress has been made in

improving the long-term health of extremely premature babies,

and with pre-term births on the rise across Europe, rates of

serious disability are likely to increase, doctors said on

Wednesday.

A decade of advances in medicine mean more babies born at

between 22 and 26 weeks gestation manage to survive, but rates

of severe health complications remain as high as they were in

1995, according to research by neonatal specialists in Britain.

The findings of two separate studies published in the

British Medical Journal suggest the number of children and

adults with disabilities caused by premature birth will rise in

coming years.

Babies born before 27 weeks of gestation - 13 weeks before

they would be considered full term - face a battle for survival.

Many of those who do survive face problems such as lung

conditions, learning difficulties and cerebral palsy.

Rates of premature birth are rising in many European

countries and are particularly high in Britain and the United

States.

"As the number of children that survive pre-term birth

continues to rise, so will the number who experience disability

throughout their lives," said Neil Marlow, of University College

London's Institute for Women's Health, who worked on both

studies and presented the results at a briefing in London.

He said this was "likely to have an impact on the demand for

health, education and social care services."

The two studies, led by Marlow and Kate Costeloe of Queen

Mary, University of London, compared a group of babies born in

the UK between 22 and 26 weeks' gestation in 2006 with those

born between 22 and 25 weeks over a 10-month period in 1995.

The first one looked at the immediate survival rates and the

health - until they went home from hospital - of extremely

premature babies born in 2006 and compared them with 1995 rates.

Researchers found the number of babies born at 22 to 25

weeks and admitted to intensive care increased by 44 percent

during this period. The number of babies who survived long

enough to go home from hospital increased by 13 percent.

There was no significant increase in survival of babies born

before 24 weeks - the current legal limit for abortion in

Britain - and the number of babies who had major health

complications was unchanged over the decade.

Costeloe said what while survival rates for babies born at

less than 27 weeks gestation were moving in the "right

direction", there was still room for improvement.

"We can't be complacent, because the fact of the matter is,

that in 2006 if at this gestation you were alive at the end of

the first week, you had no greater chance of going home (from

hospital) than you would have done had you managed to survive

the first week of life in 1995."

The second study looked at the health of the 2006 babies

when at three years old and compared this with 1995. It found

that while 11 percent more babies survived to three without

disabilities the proportion of survivors born between 22 and 25

weeks with severe disability was about the same - at 18 percent

in 1995 and 19 percent in 2006.

The researchers also found a link between gestational age

and the risk of disability, with babies born earlier more likely

to have serious health complications at three years of age.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland, editing by Rosalind Russell)

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