Premature birth therapy widely recommended worldwide is 'ineffective', says study

Although the treatment is safe it fails to achieve what is has been designed for, say researchers

A therapy widely recommended in the UK, Europe and the US to stop women giving birth prematurely is ineffective, newly-published research shows.

Although the treatment is safe for both mother and child it fails to achieve what is has been designed for, according to researchers who called for a review of the medicine.

They also said the findings, based on a trial taking place between February 2009 and April 2013 involving more than 1,200 women, should spark "a re-doubling of efforts" to find alternative interventions to prevent premature births.

Previous research suggested that the therapy – a hormone called progesterone – may stop pregnant women from giving birth early but little was known about its long term effects. 

This latest trial, whose results are published in The Lancet medical journal, is the largest to assess the effects of the treatment on women and the first to study its effects in babies born after the therapy.

Researchers focused on women who are considered to have a greater risk of premature delivery – either because they have previously delivered a baby early or have lost a baby late in pregnancy.

Around a half of the women were given progesterone and the others were given a dummy placebo pill. The team found that while the therapy appeared to be safe, it did not reduce the risk of premature delivery and offered no notable health benefits for mother or baby.

They concluded: “For those clinicians and women who wish still to use progesterone for preterm birth prophylaxis, our data provide reassurance that it appears safe, at least until 2 years of age of the child.”

More than 64 hospitals from around the UK were involved in the research, which was led by the Tommy’s Centre for Maternal and Fetal Health at the University of Edinburgh.

Professor Jane Norman, Director of the Tommy’s Centre at the University of Edinburgh, said: “Babies born too early have a much greater risk of short-term and long-term health problems. We need to find new strategies that help mums carry their babies to term.”