With India accounting for 25 per cent of preterm babies globally, the Ministry of Science and Technology is launching the first national programme to study the reasons for such births, in an effort to prevent neonatal deaths. The government has set aside Rs 48.85 crore for the first phase of the programme that will be undertaken over five years.
Named the Grand Challenge Programme, the study will be done at two medical colleges in Delhi — Safdarjung and Maulana Azad Medical College(MAMC) — as well as at the Gurgaon civic hospital. Globally, Preterm Birth (PTB), defined as births that take place before the mother has been pregnant for at least 37 weeks, are a major cause of neonatal deaths.
According to WHO, in India, among the 27 million babies born annually, 3.6 million babies are born preterm and over three lakh of these babies die each year because of associated complications.
Addressing a press conference on Tuesday, MoS (Science and Technology) Jitendra Singh said, “We believe we can significantly reduce preterm births if the reasons are studied in such detail so that we can predict if a birth will take place before term. To collect scientific information on pregnancy that may lead to a preterm birth, a woman has to be identified early in pregnancy, followed up through the duration of pregnancy during which clinical and lifestyle information must be collected. Biological changes taking place during this period must also be assayed by collecting blood and other biological materials from the pregnant woman.”
He said since the differences in biological responses and lifestyle factors are enormous among pregnant woman, information on these factors needed to be collected on a large cohort to understand preterm births.
According to officials in the ministry, the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute (THSTI) in Gurgaon will be the main coordinator of the programme that will try to identify the correlates, causes and biomarkers of preterm births.
“The programme will try to stratify women early in pregnancy or before conception into various levels of risk of PTB, identify simple and better prediction tools that will recognise the optimal time of prediction and clinical intervention, develop additional strategies to identify presence of unusual microbes in these women that could serve as biomarkers for PTB,” an official said.
This, experts hope, will help identify therapies to prevent PTB, which in turn will reduce infant and maternal mortality rates. The programme will first establish a hospital-based cohort of pregnant women starting from the first trimester, each of whom will be followed up until delivery.
For this, the district hospital in Gurgaon has been identified as the primary site. Safdarjung Hospital will be responsible for the subjects referred from Gurgaon General Hospital during the study.
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