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Is COVID-19 saving babies from premature birth in Canada?

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Canadian researchers are looking into why the premature birth rate has dropped

TORONTO, ON., August 12, 2020 — A fascinating trend is now on the radar screens of medical professionals around the world. For some reason, the number of premature births has dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, hospitals across Canada have reported declines as high as 80%. But why is this happening? Is it directly related to COVID-19? And can we use this opportunity to improve prenatal health even after the pandemic? 

Meghan Azad is a researcher at the University of Manitoba and for several months now she’s been working alongside a dedicated team with limited funds to answer those questions.

Azad and her co-leads on the research including Merilee Brockway and David Burgner, say that the trend of decreased births first emerged in Europe where the pandemic swept through before creeping its way into North America. 

Then some colleagues tipped them off that the demand for human breast milk donors was down significantly and so sparked this quest to find some answers to a problem with some very dire consequences. 

Dr. Meghan Azad is a researcher at the University of Manitoba, photo twitter

“Globally, preterm birth is the leading cause of infant mortality, resulting in over 1 million deaths per year.” explains Azad. “And preterm infants who survive can have life-long health challenges. If we can figure out any way to reduce the number of preterm births, this will be important research and could have very meaningful outcomes for the health of infants worldwide.” 

Azad’s team has been collecting data now for six months and has yet to analyze the findings but they do have three working theories at this time. 

The first is the reduced workload on mothers. 

“Typically in many countries, mothers have to work up until their due dates. However, the lockdown required many pregnant women to work from home or have more flexible work hours, or not be working at all. This reduced physical stress on the body may have an impact,” says Azad. 

Second, expectant mothers are going out less because of lockdown and might be reducing their exposure to infections. Think being stuck in lockdown, increased handwashing and general cleaning of the home. 

And the third theory is reduced exposure to pollution. Once again, we are all in lockdown and for a long time fewer cars were on the roads than at any point in time over the past several decades. 

“It is important to note,” cautions Azad, “That one of our first priorities will be to determine if these trends are due to pregnancies extending to full-term (greater than 37 weeks gestation) or if we are in fact seeing higher rates of stillbirths. Once we establish this, then we will look at the factors contributing to these trends.”

Ultimately, Azad says that this “natural experiment” could help researchers and clinicians better understand the many factors that contribute to preterm birth and they are hoping to involve policymakers in their work with the hopes of making the world a better place. 

“If we can reduce preterm birth, even by a small amount, the cost savings for the healthcare system will be profound.”

lead photo: © Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons

story by David Goldberg

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