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Premature birth leading cause of death among babies in East Asia-Pacific region

Simple, cost-effective solutions exist to prevent 75 per cent of pre-term babies dying

A nurse tends a sleeping premature baby in an incubator © UNICEF/NYHQ2011-1630/GIACOMO PIROZZI

Bangkok, 17 November 2012 – Premature, or Pre-term, birth is the leading cause of newborn deaths in East Asia and the Pacific, and the second-leading cause of death in children under the age of five. Pre-term births are defined as babies born before 37 weeks of pregnancy are completed.

Tremendous progress has been made in East Asia and the Pacific in reducing the number of children who die before their fifth birthday. Since 1990, under-five mortality has dropped across East Asia and the Pacific by 70 per cent. Yet the number of neonatal, or newborn, deaths has not fallen as quickly.

Neonatal deaths are now responsible for nearly 60 per cent of all under-five deaths in the region. East Asia and Pacific has the highest proportion of neonatal deaths, as a share of under-five-deaths, globally.

“The neonatal mortality rate in the region is very high,” said Nabila Zaka, UNICEF’s East Asia and Pacific Maternal and Child Health Specialist. “Premature birth is a major contributor to this problem because pre-term babies are at higher risk of suffering breathing difficulties, having problems feeding, maintaining their body temperature and having lower immunity to infections.”

“But we have simple and affordable solutions to save more than 75 per cent of the preterm babies who are dying each year. For example the widespread use of Antenatal Corticosteroids, which help newborns to breathe, is a simple intervention and very feasible in all country contexts,” said Zaka.

Globally, there are only 15 countries that account for two thirds of all pre-term births, and three of those countries are in East Asia. China ranks No.2 after India, Indonesia is No.5 and Philippines has the eighth most pre-term births.

“Updating national guidelines for managing preterm births and improving knowledge of health workers is going to be critical in these countries, and across the region, to ensure that the many simple life saving measures are made available to all mothers and newborns,” said Zaka. “Continuing the progress that has been made in reducing the number of children under five who die each year is going to depend on it.”


Note: World Prematurity Day, November 17 2012, is part of a global effort to raise awareness of the deaths and disabilities due to prematurity and the simple, proven cost-effective measures that could prevent them. World Prematurity Day is building momentum by showing how countries can reduce preterm births and better care for babies born too soon.

UNICEF is on the ground in over 150 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence.  The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS.  UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments. For more information about UNICEF and its work in East Asia and the Pacific visit:

Follow @UnicefAsiaPac on Twitter.

For more information, please contact:
Chris de Bono, UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Regional Office, +662-356-9406,
Geoffrey Keele, UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Regional Office, +662-356-9407,




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