An unforeseen effect observed by doctors during the pandemic is a sharp decline in the number of premature babies. Initially seen in Denmark and Ireland, a growing number of countries are now reporting a decline in premature births. With cases being reported from different parts of the world as well, researchers now think this could be a pattern.
It all started when doctors from Denmark and Ireland independently found that premature births, especially the earliest and most dangerous ones, have reduced drastically during the lockdown. Soon, doctors from other countries also started reporting similar cases.
On June 5, Dr. Roy Philip and his colleagues from Ireland reported in the pre-print health journal medRxiv that between January and April, their hospital recorded a quarter of the premature births in comparison to those in the same period since 2001.
They considered birth weights, a useful indicator of premature births. The very low birth weight (VLBW) between January and April from 2001 to 2019 was 8.18 per 1000 live births. In 2020, the number plummeted to 2.17 per 1000 live births, their study said.
The doctors work at the University Maternity Hospital, Limerick, in Ireland, which caters to a population of about 4,73,000. The demographic encompasses many counties and provides a unique chance of studying demographic and epidemiologic trends of births. At the end of June, when the country was easing lockdown restrictions, the number of premature births was still less.
While the Irish doctors were looking for patterns, another group of doctors from Denmark, unaware of their counterparts’ work in Ireland, observed a similar pattern. The Danish doctors also reported their findings in medRxiv on May 23. Dr. Michael Christiansen and his colleagues were surprised by a NICU (Newborn Intensive Care Unit) that was nearly empty. At the Statens Serum Institute, Copenhagen, Dr. Christiansen and his colleagues assessed nationwide newborn data from the period when the lockdown was in place – between March and April, 2020. They compared this data set to data from the five previous years.
To their surprise, they found that rate of premature births happening 28 weeks before usual, had declined by 90%.
Similar news came from Alberta, Canada. Neonatologist Dr. Belalf Alshaikh said that the number of premature births had declined by almost half during the period of the lockdown due to COVID-19. A similar observation was reported from the Netherlands as well.
The Auckland City Hospital in New Zealand reported that even the most extreme premature births had gone down by almost half during the lockdown.
The New York Times reported that the US also had fewer NICU babies than what is usually observed in the month of March. Fewer premature babies than usual were reported from Australia as well.
The data presents ample evidence to show that the decline of premature births during the lockdown could be a phenomenon.
What is intriguing is what drove the observed pattern of decline in premature babies. It is said that three factors could have had an impact, the first being rest. Due to the lockdown, pregnant women could have had enough rest and remained relatively free from the stress of their workplace environment. They may also have got more care from families.
Another factor could be a lesser exposure to infections. By staying back home, pregnant women got a chance to reduce their exposure to infections other than the novel coronavirus, which is not the case generally. The third factor, according to researchers, is that air pollution has come down globally during the lockdown period. Air pollution has been linked to some early births.