A new United Nations-backed report is urging Caribbean and other countries to invest more and take greater action to reduce the number of babies born with low birth weights that put their health at risk.
The UN said around one-in-seven babies worldwide weighed less than 5.5 pounds, or 2.5 kilograms at birth, according to latest data from 2015.
The United Nations Population Division said there were 938, 300 low birthweight babies in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2015, compared to 1,023,300 in 2000.
The UN-back report – the Lancet Global Health research paper, was developed by experts from the World Health Organization (WHO), UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
The report not only reveals that more than 20 million babies that year were born with a low birthweight but that 80 per cent of the world’s 2.5 million low weight newborns die every year, because they are either pre-term and/or small for gestational age.
“We have seen very little change over 15 years”, says lead author Hannah Blencowe, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the United Kingdom. “Despite clear commitments, our estimates indicate that national Governments are doing too little to reduce low birth weight”.
In 2012, the UN noted that WHO’s 195 member-states committed to reduce its prevalence by 30 per cent by 2025.
But estimates found only a 1.2 per cent decrease worldwide – from 22.9 million low birthweight livebirths in 2000 to 20.5 million in 2015 – “indicating that if the rate did not pick up, the world would fall well short of the annual 2.7 per cent reduction required to meet the 2012 target,” the UN said.
Although every newborn must be weighed, co-author UNICEF Statistics and Monitoring Specialist, Julia Krasevec, says that “worldwide, we don’t have a record for the birth weight of nearly one-third of all newborns”.
“We cannot help babies born with low birth weight without improving the coverage and accuracy of the data we collect”, she adds.
The report says key drivers of low birth weight throughout life include: Extremes in maternal age; multiple pregnancy; obstetric complications; chronic maternal conditions, such as hypertensive pregnancy disorders; infections, such as malaria; nutritional status; environmental factors, such as indoor air pollution; tobacco; and drug use.
The research paper says low weight babies who survive are at greater risk of stunting, or being short for their ages in height, and suffering developmental and physical ill health later in life, including chronic conditions, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
The study’s authors have called for international action to ensure that all babies are weighed at birth to improve clinical care and promote public health inquiry into the causes of low birthweight in order to reduce death and disability.
“With better weighing devices and stronger data systems, we can capture the true birth weight of every baby, including those born at home, and provide better quality of care to these newborns and their mothers”, Krasevec says.
In low-income countries, such as those in the Caribbean, the report says poor growth in the womb is a major cause, while the new analysis associates the issue in more developed regions with prematurity, or a baby which is born earlier than 37 weeks.
Because it is “a complex clinical entity”, WHO co-author Mercedes de Onis says that reduction “requires understanding of the underlying causes in a given country”, which “should be a priority” in high-burden countries.