JEDDAH: Up to 60,000 babies are born prematurely every year in Saudi Arabia with hospitals in the Kingdom spending up to SR60,000 ($16,000) on individual treatment and specialized care, a leading pediatrician told Arab News.
Dr. Sawsan Hussein Daffa, consultant neonatologist and head of pediatrics department at the Aya Specialist Hospital, said that the Saudi Ministry of Health is working to ensure premature infants get the best medical help possible, in addition to assisting families, despite the high cost.
Daffa was speaking after World Prematurity Day on Nov. 17.
Any child born before 36 weeks of the gestational age is called premature.
“The particularly small babies are placed in incubators for a period of time ranging from 30 to 60 days. This can cost government hospitals/insurance companies around SR60,000. Some others are placed there for longer periods and can even cost SR100,000,” she said.
However, the consultant said that up to 28 percent of premature babies die due to complications.
The Saudi Health Ministry’s website said that some preterm births are likely to have more health problems than babies born on time. “These may face long-term health problems affecting the brain, lungs, hearing or vision.”
“One of the most life-threatening problems is respiratory distress syndrome (RDS), which can cause babies to need extra oxygen and help with breathing. RDS occurs when there is not enough surfactant in the lungs. This substance, made by the lungs, keeps the airways open and helps babies breathe,” she said.
Daffa said that a baby with RDS is usually kept on a respiratory machine and receives surfactant.
“Premature babies are put in incubators until they are 1.8 to 2kg. This normally needs a month or two. Sometimes, they are placed there for three months depending on the weight of the premature child when they were born. The less they weigh, the more time they need to spend in the incubator,” she said.
Daffa said that World Prematurity Day was first celebrated 11 years ago in Italy when the families of premature infants gathered. “It has been celebrated yearly since then,” she said.
“It is an occasion during which physicians work on promoting awareness among families, especially pregnant women, to prevent preterm births. It is also a chance to spread awareness as to how to help premature babies avoid diseases.”
The consultant said that a premature baby grows differently from a full-term baby in their early years.
“These babies may start walking later than their peers. Sometimes complications can affect their brains and thus, they join school late, too,” she said. But she said that by the age of 10 their development was similar to that of other children.
The neonatologist advised parents of premature children to attend events to help their children avoid complications.
“Pregnant mothers should follow up with their doctors to detect problems early and find solutions. They should also follow a diet rich in proteins, folic acid and minerals,” she added.
Daffa said a special vaccine given to premature babies could protect them against the respiratory syncytial virus, which normally hits premature infants from October to March.
According to a 2018 report by the World Health Organization, more than 60 percent of preterm births occur in Africa and South Asia, but preterm birth is a global problem. In lower-income countries, on average 12 percent of babies are born too early compared with 9 percent in higher-income countries, the report said.
Within countries, poorer families are at higher risk, it added.
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