One silver lining: fewer premature babies being born during lockdown

23 July 2020 - 06:59 By Tanya Farber
Researchers say more resources should go into finding out how preterm births can be prevented, based on the findings.
Researchers say more resources should go into finding out how preterm births can be prevented, based on the findings.
Image: 123RF/Kati Finell

Even before they compared notes, doctors in several countries began noticing a strange phenomenon during the Covid-19 lockdown: far fewer premature babies were being born.

From Denmark to Australia to Ireland, and possibly SA too, neonatal ICU beds have sat empty while the ICUs for other patients have been filling up.

Two academic papers are now awaiting peer review before being published, but they tell the same story: fewer babies are coming into this world prematurely, which means fewer are requiring intensive medical support in a hospital setting.

According to science journal Nature: “From Ireland to Australia, some hospitals are reporting that far fewer premature babies are being born during the coronavirus pandemic.”

It states: “During Denmark’s lockdown, the birth rate of extremely premature infants decreased by 90% compared with the stable rate in the preceding five years. Perhaps pregnant women were getting more rest, or catching fewer infections in general, or inhaling less air pollution? More research is needed, but neonatologists hope that the answers could help to reduce the risk of being born too early.”

There are no comprehensive stats or studies from SA as yet, but there are signs that this may be the case here too.

Life Healthcare, one of the country’s biggest private hospital groups, said they had not been able to gather enough data because of a recent cyberattack, but Dr Paul Soko, an executive in the company, told TimesLIVE: “We do know that Discovery, for instance, has indicated a significant decline in neonatal ICU admissions since Covid-19.”

Premature births, he said, were normally “the leading cause for neonatal ICU admissions”.

Scientists say further research is required to establish why these stats have popped up, but some of the possible explanations could be reduced exposure to infections, far less work-related stress, and a major dip in air pollution.

In the Irish study, weight was used as a proxy for preterm birth. Data was gathered on how many babies weighing under 1.5kg had been born in a certain time frame during lockdown, in a specific region of Ireland which includes Limerick.

In the preceding years, the average rate of babies being born with “very low birthweight” was almost four times higher.

But what had prompted them to realise something had changed?

The lead author of the study, Prof Roy Philip, got marooned elsewhere while on holiday just before lockdown hit.

On his return, he noticed that no orders had been placed for a special fortifier that is used for preterm babies, and he began asking questions.

No orders were placed as no preterm babies had been born during those weeks.

“There are normal fluctuations in the numbers of babies born but when they told me that none had been born for that length of time I thought that was unusual. And that triggered us to dive deeper into the data,” he is quoted as saying in The Telegraph.

What emerged from that data “surprised” him — he thought there had been a mistake and checked the figures over and over again, but when the Danish Study, which he knew nothing about, emerged, he knew they were onto something.

In that study, data was collected on babies born in lockdown in Denmark before the 28th week of pregnancy.

Births for that same month (around mid March to mid April) were then analysed from the five preceding years.

During the lockdown, the rate of babies born before 28 weeks dropped by 90%.

The researchers say it is difficult to determine the exact reasons for the drop, but possible factors include a reduction in air pollution, less work-related stress and lower exposure to infections during pregnancy.

The Danish and Irish researchers are now establishing an international collaboration to determine how the pandemic affects early births.

© TimesLIVE