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Advances in treatment improve survival rates for premmie babies

Parents, such as Emma and David Crowley, are among those praising advances in treatment and technology this World Prematurity Day—November 17.

Their daughter Lavinia was born prematurely at Mater Mothers’ Hospital Brisbane earlier this year.

“Although Lavinia was, fortunately, one of the healthier babies, she required around-the-clock care in Mater’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) for five weeks before we were able to bring her home,” Emma says.

“We spent every minute of every hour that we could watching over her humidicrib, and later open cot, to see that she was gaining strength and weight, as we were often anxious of losing her.

“She’s now a healthy, happy six-month old baby girl.”

Babies born as early as 23 weeks are now frequently being resuscitated thanks to advances in technology and treatments—and significant discussions are now being had as to whether hospitals should allow offer resuscitation to some babies born at 22 weeks.

Survival rates have increased considerably and lung disease is declining among babies born prematurely thanks to a number of new treatments.

Mater Mothers’ Hospital Neocritical Care Unit Associate Professor Luke Jardine—speaking on World Prematurity Day—says resuscitating premature babies immediately after birth by using a device that delivers airway pressure through a small mask over their noses has reduced the need to insert breathing tubes into the tiny newborns.

“Using Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) devices has led to a 20 per cent reduction in the number of babies needing a breathing tube and a ventilator immediately after birth,” Professor Jardine says.

“This may result in an increase in these extremely premature babies surviving without lung disease.”

Associate Professor Jardine says Mater is also looking at the way premature babies are administered surfactant, a drug used to treat the lung disease of prematurity.

“Instead of inserting it via a breathing tube—which is the way it has traditionally been done—we are now leaving the baby on CPAP and using a small catheter to administer it,” he says.

Recent advances have not only worked to improve survival rates among preterm infants, but to also decrease the complications of being born prematurely.

“Apart from decreasing the use of breathing tubes, we also have projects aimed at stopping babies getting cold after delivery, preventing infections and reducing severe bleeding into the brain.

“We are also increasing the amount of time babies have skin-to-skin contact with their parents, and minimising the amount of handling that babies receive in the first few hours of life.”

Associate Professor Jardine says recent decades have seen advances in treating very premature babies, some as early as 23 weeks gestation.

“Here at Mater, we are now frequently resuscitating babies born at 23 weeks and there is significant discussion around whether or not we should be also offering resuscitation to some babies at 22 weeks as many international centres do this already,” he says.

Mater Director of Neonatology Dr Pita Birch says Christmas can be a particularly difficult time for the many families with babies remaining in NICU over the holiday season.

“It can be an incredibly hard road for parents,” Dr Birch says.

“But we continue to make incredible leaps ahead in treatments and care so we can continue to see more premature babies grow up to be happy and healthy children.”

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