In 2014 8.6% of babies born in Australia were pre-term (26,835 of 312,548 births).[1] Of those, 5,765 babies were born in Queensland between 28 and 36 weeks[2]. This number increases further if very pre-term babies (between 24 to 28 weeks) are taken into account.

Despite the advances in the treatment and care of these infants approximately 7% of babies born between 20 and 27 weeks gestation unfortunately do not survive.[3] Worldwide, preterm births are responsible for 85% of early infant deaths.[4] Of those who do, many face life-long complications such as cerebral palsy, respiratory problems, vision or hearing impairments.[5]

On average, 72% of these premature infants will require care in either a neonatal intensive care unit or special care nursery.[6] With the cost of caring for these babies in the order of $3,000 per day, with an average stay in the NICU at the Mater Mothers’ Hospital at 18.5 days[7], the costs to the health system of caring for these babies is enormous.

It is not just the care of the babies however, there are additional costs associated with transferring mothers in threatened pre-term labor to a major facility where she and the baby can be appropriately cared for. The emotional and psychological costs to the mothers and families is also significant.

Current tests available for predicting whether a symptomatic mother will go on to deliver pre-term have sub-optimal prognostic value. They are more effective at ruling out mother’s who won’t go on to deliver, than predicting those that will. Approximately 50% of positive results prove to be false.[8] This can result in unnecessary transfer and stress to the family.

Melbourne University recently published about promising research being conducted at its Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the Mercy Hospital for Women[9]. A team there, headed by obstetrician Dr Di Quinzio has uncovered a set of unique chemical combinations or biomarkers that appear before a woman goes into labor. They hope to be able to develop a test that would use these biomarkers to predict the onset of labor during the 24 to 28 week stage of pregnancy, a time that is particularly high risk.

Being able to predict that a woman was going to deliver her baby early would allow for appropriate arrangements to be made not only by the doctors and health system caring for her, but also the family. In third world countries where pre-term birth is a particular problem due to difficulties accessing suitable health care facilities, it would provide a window in which the mother could travel to access an appropriate level of care. As such, this research has implications for maternal and child well-being world wide.