Action Research is calling for more research into the cause and prevention of premature birth which could save the NHS well over £200 million per year.
The leading medical charity has found that, in some severe cases, up to £1,000 a day is spent on caring for a baby in a neonatal intensive care unit.
In most cases such intensive care is not necessary. However, a recent study*1 has shown that the average cost of caring for premature babies is around £1 million per neonatal unit. There are nearly 250 such units in the UK. In England alone between 1994 and 1995, over forty thousand*2 babies were born prematurely - that's one every 15 minutes.
As a charity dedicated to overcoming disease and disability, Action Research has committed over £1 million into the area of premature birth since October of last year. The charity is taking a two-track approach to dealing with the problem.
Firstly, it is supporting vital work that will give premature babies the best chance of having a healthy life.
In one such project, researchers at Queen's University, Belfast and led by Professor Henry Halliday, in conjunction with Ealing Hospital and the University of Dundee, have been gathering conclusive evidence of whether the drug 'Dexamethasone' can help babies born too early.
About 25% of very low birth weight babies develop chronic lung disease and administration of this drug has been used to improve lung function in these babies.
Action Research is also funding pioneering research to enable specialists to look for ways of preventing babies from being born too soon.
A project which illustrates this is work into pre-eclampsia and fetal growth restriction currently taking place at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle -upon-Tyne in conjunction with the Institute of Medical Genetics, Glasgow.
When a mother develops pre-eclampsia the baby may need to be delivered straight away, even if it will be premature - otherwise the health of the mother and baby could be adversely affected.
In this project doctors are investigating why the placenta fails to supply the developing fetus with an appropriate amount of oxygen and nutrients because these 'growth retarded' babies are ten times more likely do die in the womb or after birth. At present, the only treatment available is delivery, often exposing sick infants to the added risk of prematurity.
Commenting on the report, Action Research's Director General, Anne Luther said: "While Action Research will continue to fund research to help babies born prematurely, in future the emphasis must be on prevention. That way fewer babies will need intensive care and millions of pounds will be saved - as well perhaps thousands of lives."
She added: "Action Research is proud of its achievements in the study of premature birth, but will not have succeeded in its work until the prevention of such births is eradicated."
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