Preterm Birth Prevention Research
Over the past year, the Foundation has made significant headway toward achieving one of its enduring priorities – understanding how to prevent preterm birth. Assisted by the largest single tertiary level centre for management of preterm births in Australia, King Edward Memorial Hospital (KEMH), the Foundation has established itself as a world-leader in this area of research.
Premature birth affects one in twelve Western Australian pregnancies (approximately 3000 births per year) and in Aboriginal women, the incidence is one in seven. It is the single largest cause of death and disability in children up to five years of age in developed countries. As a result of modern obstetric and new-born care, many children now survive preterm birth, for others however, there may be lifelong disability. Those born at the earliest gestational ages may suffer from severe problems such as cerebral palsy, developmental delay or blindness. For those born at a later gestation, even approaching full-term, there may be behavioural and learning problems.
In November 2014, the Foundation together with KEMH, the WA Department of Health and the UWA School of Women’s and Infants’ Health, launched the Western Australian Preterm Birth Prevention Initiative, ‘The Whole Nine Months’, a state- wide program aimed at lowering the rate of preterm birth in WA by 35 percent over the next five years.
The Initiative Outreach team, led by Prof John Newnham, and comprising specialist obstetricians, midwives and sonographers, have been busy throughout 2015 conducting a state-wide education program aimed at informing all health care practitioners in Western Australia of the new clinical guidelines informed by research and developed as a part of the Initiative. The Initiative will continue on with a broader public awareness campaign in subsequent years.
The Initiative has also included the setup of a Preterm Birth Prevention Clinic at KEMH, for women at high risk of having a preterm birth. The Clinic was launched on a trial basis late in 2014, and, following initial signs of success, received additional State Government funding to continue on through to mid-2016. In addition to treating pregnancies at high risk of preterm delivery, the Clinic is contributing towards the collection of valuable biological samples and clinical data following the establishment of the WA Pregnancy Biobank (funded by Channel 7 Telethon Trust), and will assist research projects into the future.
Alongside the Initiative, the Foundation has continued a strong program of research into the causes of preterm birth that will continue to translate into improved clinical outcomes. Our researchers have continued to understand the role that intrauterine infection and inflammation plays in the onset of early labour. The study of safe and efficacious drug therapies to combat particular strains of organisms associated with these inflammatory pathways has also continued as an area of key importance. The Foundation’s research into the genetic causes of premature birth is also continuing.
No single intervention alone will prevent all cases of preterm birth. However, by conducting a multifaceted research, medical, midwifery and public health program, we expect to make a significant impact on this major complication of pregnancy. Diseases are best prevented at their origins, and there can be few better examples of improving the health of our community than the benefits that will arise from preventing preterm birth.