Half of extremely premature babies suffer disabilities

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The human cost of medical advance was spelt out yesterday in a study that showed half of extremely premature babies will grow up with a disability ranging from difficulty with walking to blindness.

The human cost of medical advance was spelt out yesterday in a study that showed half of extremely premature babies will grow up with a disability ranging from difficulty with walking to blindness.

The number of premature babies who survive birth at less than 26 weeks' gestation has increased sharply in the past decade with the development of new techniques to assist breathing and boost growth in the womb. But the legacy of improved survival is an increasing number of damaged children who will require care throughout their lives.

The advance also carries immense costs. International research suggests that extremely premature babies who survive spend an average of four months in intensive care at a cost of £166,000. There is also the cost of lifelong care.

The high risk of disability in extremely premature babies is revealed in research on 314 children born in the United Kingdom between March and December1995 and assessed at the age of two and a half. They were the only ones allowed home of 4,004 babies born at less than 26 weeks' gestation in the 10-month period.

Of the 283 children included in the study, 27 (10 per cent) were unable to walk, 12 (4 per cent) could not use their hands to feed themselves and 7 (2 per cent) were blind. In all, 49 per cent had some disability and 23 per cent were severely disabled.

The aim of the study, led by Nicholas Wood of the University of Nottingham and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, was to provide parents and doctors with clearer information about the risks. "The prevention or amelioration of disability in survivors of extreme prematurity remains one of the most important challenges in medicine," they say.

But parents are using "hope and denial" to interpret the risks in their own way, according to an editorial in the journal.

A spokeswoman for Bliss, the charity for premature and sick babies, said the technology to keep babies alive was improving all the time but neither doctors nor parents were clear what the consequences could be. "We get a lot of calls from parents of babies born that early wanting to know what is going to happen. Their consultant may say there is a 50-50 chance but that doesn't clarify the future. Any parent should be advised very carefully what the risks are."

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