Uganda is one of the countries grappling with a high number of premature babies, which strains the health budget and retards development, experts have disclosed.
Of the 1.5 million children born in Uganda every year, 210,000 are born too soon, before 37 weeks of pregnancy, according to Dr. Gelasius Mukasa, the chairman of the national newborn steering committee. Experts say a normal baby should spend 40 weeks in the womb.
This implies that 14% of Ugandan babies are born before their due date, which results into death of some, while others grow up with ill-health.
According to Dr. Jessica Nsumba, the assistant commissioner for child health in the Ministry of Health, Uganda is ranked 13th out of 184 countries with the highest number of babies born prematurely.
Uganda also ranks 11th in the number of deaths due to complications from pre-term birth. Statistics from the health ministry show that 38% of the 39,000 deaths occurring in the babies' first 28 days are due to premature births. This is because premature babies' lungs are under-developed which causes breathing difficulties among other health problems.
"We have not done impact assessments. But we know that even the economy is affected because on the one hand, premature babies are vulnerable to enormous illnesses that are expensive to treat and this consumes money," said Dr. Mukasa.
"On the other hand, the mothers' productivity goes down because they have to look after the sickly babies. Even if the baby survives, many end up with disabilities like blindness and won't be so productive to the economy," he added.
Mukasa was speaking during a media dialogue organised by the health ministry to sensitise journalists about the dangers of premature births at the Kampala Africana Hotel over the weekend.
This was part of the national celebrations to commemorate the world prematurity day on Saturday. Premature births are linked to multiple pregnancies and bleeding from the vagina (antenatal haemorrhage).
Another common trigger of premature birth is cervical incompetence, a condition in which a pregnant woman's cervix begins to widen and thin before her pregnancy has reached due term.
Mukasa, however, attributed the problem in Uganda mainly to malaria and other infections in pregnant women. He also cited pre-eclampsia, a condition in which hypertension arises in pregnancy. It is associated with significant amounts of protein in the urine. Pre-eclampsia affects the placenta, and it can affect the mother's kidney, liver, and brain.
"The high death rates among new born babies lead to high infant and child mortality rates," said Mukasa. "Unless we do something to prevent deaths among babies, other health indicators won't be brought down significantly."
Dr. Nsumba and Dr. Hanifah Naamala a paediatrician working with Save the Children, called for rolling out of the Kangaroo mother care method, the most effective and cheap way to help pre-term babies to grow.
Nsumba advised expectant mothers to practice good hygiene and complete the required four antenatal care visits to hospitals for success in detecting preterm birth.