In an analysis of four datasets from East Africa, Tanya Marchant and colleagues investigate the neonatal mortality risk associated with preterm birth and how this changes with weight for gestational age.
Low birth weight and prematurity are amongst the strongest predictors of neonatal death. However, the extent to which they act independently is poorly understood. Our objective was to estimate the neonatal mortality risk associated with preterm birth when stratified by weight for gestational age in the high mortality setting of East Africa.
Methods and Findings
Members and collaborators of the Malaria and the MARCH Centers, at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, were contacted and protocols reviewed for East African studies that measured (1) birth weight, (2) gestational age at birth using antenatal ultrasound or neonatal assessment, and (3) neonatal mortality. Ten datasets were identified and four met the inclusion criteria. The four datasets (from Uganda, Kenya, and two from Tanzania) contained 5,727 births recorded between 1999–2010. 4,843 births had complete outcome data and were included in an individual participant level meta-analysis. 99% of 445 low birth weight (<2,500 g) babies were either preterm (<37 weeks gestation) or small for gestational age (below tenth percentile of weight for gestational age). 52% of 87 neonatal deaths occurred in preterm or small for gestational age babies. Babies born <34 weeks gestation had the highest odds of death compared to term babies (odds ratio [OR] 58.7 [95% CI 28.4–121.4]), with little difference when stratified by weight for gestational age. Babies born 34–36 weeks gestation with appropriate weight for gestational age had just three times the likelihood of neonatal death compared to babies born term, (OR 3.2 [95% CI 1.0–10.7]), but the likelihood for babies born 34–36 weeks who were also small for gestational age was 20 times higher (OR 19.8 [95% CI 8.3–47.4]). Only 1% of babies were born moderately premature and small for gestational age, but this group suffered 8% of deaths. Individual level data on newborns are scarce in East Africa; potential biases arising due to the non-systematic selection of the individual studies, or due to the methods applied for estimating gestational age, are discussed.
Moderately preterm babies who are also small for gestational age experience a considerably increased likelihood of neonatal death in East Africa.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary.
Worldwide, every year around 3.3 million babies die within their first month of life and the proportion of under-five child deaths that are now in the neonatal period (the first 28 days of life) has increased in all regions of the world and is currently estimated at 41%. Of these deaths, over 90% occur in low- and middle-income countries, and a third of all neonatal deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa. Low birth weight (defined as <2,500 g) is one of the biggest risk factors associated with neonatal deaths but it is the causes of low birth weight, rather than the low weight itself that is thought to lead to neonatal deaths. The two main causes of low birth weight are preterm birth (delivery before 37 weeks gestation) and/or restricted growth in the womb (intra-uterine growth retardation), resulting in babies who are small for their dates (defined as being in the lowest 10% of weight expected for gestational age with reference to a US population).
Why Was This Study Done?
Despite growing international attention focused on neonatal mortality in recent years, the relative importance of low birth weight, small for gestational age, and preterm birth in causing newborn deaths remains unclear. So in this study, the researchers investigated these relationships by calculating the risk of neonatal mortality associated with preterm birth after adjusting for weight for gestational age by conducting a meta-analysis (synthesis of the data) using information from studies reporting neonatal mortality conducted in sub-Saharan Africa.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers identified potential African datasets and selected four out of a possible ten to include in their analysis as these studies included three essential birth outcomes: birth weight; gestational age measured using antenatal ultrasound, or neonatal assessment on the day of birth; and neonatal mortality. These four studies were conducted in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, all in East Africa. The researchers analysed each study separately but also conducted a pooled statistical analysis on all four studies. To give a more detailed analysis, the researchers categorized babies into six groups taking into account whether the babies were moderately preterm (born at 34–36 weeks) or very preterm (born before 34 weeks) and whether their weight was appropriate for their gestational age.
The researchers included a total of 4,843 live births in their analysis and found that overall, 9.2% of babies were low birth weight, 4.0% were preterm, and 20.4% were small for gestational age. Amongst low birth weight babies, 26.1% were preterm, 85.0% were small for gestational age, and 98.8% were either preterm or small for gestational age. In their detailed analysis, the researchers found that the odds (chance) of death in the first 28 days of life were seven times higher for babies born low birth weight compared to those with normal birth weight, with low birth weight infants experiencing a neonatal mortality rate of 80.9/1,000 live births. The odds of death were twice as high for babies born small for gestational age compared to those born appropriate for gestational age, giving a neonatal mortality rate of 29.3/1,000 live births. Furthermore, compared to those born at term, the odds of death were over six times higher for babies born moderately preterm and almost 60 times higher for babies born very preterm with almost half of all very preterm babies dying in the first 28 days of life, giving a neonatal mortality rate 473.6/1,000 live births. However, moderately preterm babies who were small for gestational age had a much greater odds of death than moderately preterm babies who were of the appropriate weight for their gestational age.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings from East Africa show that babies born either small for gestational age or preterm contributed 52% of neonatal deaths. The detailed analysis suggests that babies born preterm are at the greatest risk of death, but size for gestational age also plays an important role especially in moderately preterm babies. The results from this study emphasize the pressing need to find ways to prevent preterm delivery and intra-uterine growth retardation and also illustrate the importance of measuring and reporting outcomes of individual babies.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001292.
A recent PLOS Medicine study by Oestergaard et al. has the latest global figures on neonatal mortality
UNICEF provides information on neonatal mortality
The World Health Organization (WHO) provides factsheets on the causes of neonatal mortality, including preterm birth