Monday, November 19th, 2012
This post is written by Dana Points, editor in chief of Parents.
Watching a nurse change what must surely be the world’s smallest diaper will do more to motivate you to want to prevent prematurity than reading troubling statistics about early birth. Nevertheless, I’ll share some: Worldwide, 15 million babies are born preterm each year. 1.1 million die and many others are disabled. The rate of preterm birth in the U.S. has dropped over the last five years, but we still have the highest rate of any industrialized country.
I saw the diaper change–and incubator after incubator holding the tiniest babies, often attached to ventilators and monitors–during a visit to the neonatal intensive care unit at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, which is affiliated with Stanford University School of Medicine. There, the March of Dimes has funded a unique research center where scientists from across a wide array of specialties are examining the causes of prematurity in hopes of finding cures. (I had the opportunity to make the visit because I am a March of Dimes trustee.)
Researchers are looking at the role microorganisms that live in our digestive tract, on our skin and elsewhere in the body play in prematurity; at the connections between genes and the environment; and at the way data can be used to examine why some hospitals have higher rates of early births and what doctors can do to bring down the numbers. Here at Parents we have “bagel Wednesdays” when our staff shares breakfast and conversation. But at the MOD’s Prematurity Research Center they have “preterm Wednesdays” where scientists share findings and ideas. Pretty humbling to think about the difference.
The scientists and the babies are heroic here, but so are the California moms-to-be and moms who are participating in the center’s research by giving weekly samples scraped from their gums and skin, as well as urine and blood samples, which scientists are using to help identify possible causes of prematurity. The lab’s giant freezers are crowded with 10,000 samples. The vials arrive in thermal lunch bags like the kind my kids use. These are bright red so as not to be confused with…lunch (photo to the right).
The goal of the Prematurity Research Center is essentially to put the NICU out of business, and the doctors who spend their days treating these babies say their top priority is prevention. Until that goal is achieved, we’ll keep World Prematurity Day on the calendar as a reminder so the tiniest babies won’t be forgotten.