In the largest such international study, researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), UNICEF and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have found that one in every seven babies were born with low birth weight in 2015. The study was published online Wednesday in The Lancet Global Health.
Data were collated from over 281 million births between 2000 and 2015. In 2015, 20.5 million babies (14.6%) were found to have been born with low birth weight — less than 2.5 kg. While the prevalence in 2015 was lower than the 17.5% (22.9 million babies with low birth weight) in 2000, over 90% of the low-weight babies in 2015 were born in low- and middle-income countries.
Takeaways for India
The researchers said they were unable to arrive at national estimates for India because only partial data were available. Lead author Hannah Blencowe, from LSHTM, told The Indian Express that the national estimate and time trend for India is not reported. The National Family Health Survey (2005-06) was included in the analysis but for the latest NFHS (2015-16), only data for a single year met the inclusion criteria and these partial data were used.
“Every newborn must be weighed, yet worldwide, we don’t have a record for the birth weight of nearly one-third of all newborns,” said co-author Julia Krasevec, from UNICEF. India is among 47 countries (including 40 low- and middle-income countries that account for almost a quarter of all births worldwide) which had insufficient data.
The authors noted, however, that the estimated prevalence of low birth weight in South Asia has decreased from 32.3% in 2000 to 26.4% in 2015. They are optimistic that India, in view of its large population, will have made an important contribution to this decline. India has made progress in improving newborn care by building 834 newborn care units in the last decade, LSHTM officials said.
In 2011, The Indian Statistical Institute had reported that nearly 20% of newborns have low birth weight in India. At the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, officials said the prevalence of low birth weight was between 15% and 20%.
Rest of world
In high-income countries in Europe, North America, and Australia and New Zealand, there has been virtually no progress in reducing low birthweight rates since 2000, according to the analysis. However, prevalence is low in most of these countries. One of the lowest rates of low birth weight in 2015 was estimated in Sweden (2.4%). This compares to around 7% in some high-income countries including the USA (8%), the UK (7%), Australia (6.5%), and New Zealand (5.7%).
The regions making the fastest progress are those with the highest numbers of low birth weight babies, Southern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, with a yearly decline in low birth weight prevalence of 1.4% and 1.1%, respectively, between 2000 and 2015.
The study cautions that the annual decline will need to more than double to meet the global target of a 30% reduction between 2012 and 2025 – including in high-income countries.. The authors have also called for immediate action to tackle underlying causes of low birth weight to ensure clinical care for small babies and for all babies to be weighed at birth.
“Our estimates indicate that national governments are doing too little to reduce low birth weight. We have seen very little change over 15 years, even in high-income settings where low birth weight is often due to prematurity as a result of high maternal age, smoking, caesarean sections not medically indicated and fertility treatments that increase the risk of multiple births,” said Blencowe.