Too many babies born but too low in weight, WHO stares at future challenge

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The World Health Organization has alerted the medical community following the revelations that more than 20 million babies were born with a low birth weight, which is less than 2500 grams or 5.5 pounds, in the year 2015.

It translates that around one in seven of all births worldwide was born under-weight. More than 80% of the world's 2.5 million newborns who die every year are found to be of low birth weight, which means their survival is under question or they have a greater risk of stunting or physical ill-health later in life, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease, said the first ever documented report on low-weighing births.

Mercedes de Onis from the Department of Nutrition at WHO, who co-authored the report said reducing low birth weight requires an understanding of the underlying causes in each country. In Southern Asia, a large proportion of low birth weight babies are attributed to intrauterine growth restriction, which is linked with mother's malnutrition or under nutrition, including maternal stunting.

"Conversely, preterm birth is the major contributor to low birth weight in settings with many adolescent pregnancies, high prevalence of infection, or where pregnancy is associated with high levels of fertility treatment and caesarean sections," said Onis referring to USA and Brazil.

Although close to three-quarters were born in Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, the problem remains substantial in high-income countries too, especially in in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand, said the report.

Reducing the incidence of low birth weight requires a comprehensive global strategy, said the report pleading for improvement in maternal nutrition, treating pregnancy-associated emergencies such as pre-eclampsia and providing adequate maternal care, perinatal clinical services and above all, social support.

The findings are documented in a new research paper by experts from the WHO, UNICEF and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and it was published in the Lancet Global Health.