Premature babies now have a real fighting chance of survival
An estimated 4,000 babies are born prematurely in Ireland every year but thanks to a combination of state-of -the-art technology, medicine, techniques and expertise, survival outcomes are vastly improving.
Dr Martin White, Consultant neonatologist and director of paediatrics at the Coombe Hospital in Dublin, explained that the last two decades have seen a significant improvement in survival rates.
"In the 1980s, three out of four babies weighing between 500 grams (1.1lb) and 1.5 kilos (3.3lb) would have survived. Nowadays, if you look at the annual reports from the large maternity hospitals, the survival rate of babies born between those weights is over 85%.
"Major advances have been made in a lot of areas that are signficantly improving outcomes."
Ireland now has eight significant obstetric centres, with large neonatal intensive care units in Dublin(three of them), Cork, Limerick, Galway, Waterford and Drogheda.
Life-saving innovations, such as the hi-tech Giraffe omnibed incubator, a neonatal intensive care station that replicates the conditions of the womb, are adding to the specialised care.
There is also a national neonatal transport programme, transferring vulnerable babies to large regional or national centres, seven days a week.
But Dr White also points to advances in neonatal medicine, which are having a significant impact on improving the often compromised health of a premature baby.
Among them are the antenatal steroids Dexamehasone and Betamethasone, which are given to the mother in labour and which signficantly decrease the incidence or severity of respiratory problems in the baby.
A further drug, Surfactant therapy, which is administered to the baby after birth, is also proving vital for babies who are in need of a significant amount of additional oxygen.
"Thanks to the steroids and non-invasive respiratory support, the period babies spend on full ventilation support has decreased," said Dr White.
"This in turn has decreased the likelihood of the child developing complications from prolonged ventilation."