No pain is deeper than the loss of a child, especially a child that you only barely got to know. Premature births occur when a baby is born before the usual 40 weeks. Globally, 15 million babies are born premature every year. That is nearly 1 in every 10 births. Although 40% of all preterm births have no known cause, smoking and alcohol consumption during pregnancy cause significantly increase a mother’s risk of giving birth early. The survival rate of preterm babies increase greatly the less premature they are. Babies only 6 weeks premature have upwards of a 98% survival rate while babies born 18 weeks early have as low as a 10% survival rate. There are several factors that affect the chances of survival in preterm infants including:
- Age – The number of completed weeks of pregnancy greatly affects survival.
- Weight – Low birth weight decreases likelihood of survival.
- Gender – Male preterm infants have a greater risk of dying than female.
- Presence of breathing problems, genetics abnormalities, or infections all can greatly reduce the chances of survival.
Babies who are born prematurely cannot be fed like normal babies since their digestive systems have not matured enough yet to be able to properly handle their food. The babies are fed a nutrient rich solution through an IV in a process known as parenteral nutrition. This type of feeding is also used to feed patients suffering from severe Chron’s, ulcerative colitis, and abnormalities in the digestive tract that render it non-functional. Typically, this nutrition is delivered from a suspended bag through a clear IV line and into the baby or persons blood. This nutrient broth contains proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and vitamins. Previous research has shown that exposure of the nutrient broth to light can cause the formation of damaging molecules called oxidants. Oxidants, including hydrogen peroxide, damage the DNA and other components of your cells and can contribute to the development of cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease. Normally, your body has a precise anti-oxidant system in place to mop of these damaging oxidants. However, in the body of a premature baby, this system is not yet in place and so the oxidants they are exposed are left unopposed to do their damage.
Recently, a group of researchers from Montreal and Vancouver asked the question whether protecting this nutrient broth from light could increase the survival of preterm babies. The researchers collected data from four trials measuring the effect of shielding the IV nutrients from light on preterm infant survival. These four trials involved a combined 800 premature newborns with an age ranging between 26 weeks and 31 weeks. They found that infants who received their parenteral nutrients from a light protected source were half as likely to die when compared to those who received traditional, unprotected nutrition. 12%, or 52 of the 411 infants who received the nutrients exposed to light died while only 7%, or 28 of the 389 infants who received light shielded nutrients died. This is a huge effect for what is essentially a pretty simple procedure. Not since the use of artificial surfactant in premature infants has such an intervention made such a difference on survival. This result may also have implications for adults who are receiving parenteral nutrients to sustain their life. Further reductions in mortality might be achieved if the nutrients are shielded from light from manufacturing, to shipping, to delivery and administration.
It remains to be seen if these results hold up over time with more and more patients. However, there are no side effects from this intervention and it would be relatively cost effective to implement. Once it is, it could mean 50% fewer deaths in premature babies and many more happy parents.