The Medical Research Council (MRC) has announced that it has allocated £3 million to fund the next phase of a unique study looking into the survival prospects and long-term health and social issues facing extremely premature babies.
The EPICure study is led by Professor Neil Marlow of Queen's Medical Centre in Nottingham. It is hoped that the results will provide extensive information on survival statistics and long-term outlooks to enable medical professionals to better inform and advise parents faced with the delivery of a very premature baby.
The study began in 1995 and followed a group of babies born extremely prematurely at 25 weeks or less (normal gestation is around 40 weeks). Initial survival rates were low and only 308 surviving children were recruited on to the study out of 1289 live births. The surviving children were assessed at 2½ and 6½ years of age.
At the 2½ year assessment, the results showed that, while 50% of the children had no disability, 25% of the group experienced severe disability such as cerebral palsy, blindness or deafness. The remaining 25% experienced lower levels of disability, including low developmental scores or the need for spectacles. The researchers also found that 46% of the group were receiving treatment for chest-related medical problems, such as wheezing, coughs or asthma.
At 6½ years the children, were assessed again. Researchers found that a similar number of children were free of disability, with 25% suffering moderate or severe problems. They also found that over 85% of those who had the most severe problems at 2½ years old still had major problems at 6½. Of more concern was the finding that over 40% were assessed as needing or likely to need help in school.
The next stage of the study will start in the autumn. Researchers will revisit the same group of children, now aged 10, focusing on their psychological, psychiatric and respiratory progress.
The study will also recruit a new group of babies born at 26 weeks or less to understand how such factors as the type of treatment they receive at the time of the birth and new medical advancements might affect long-term health. The team will also use new methods for assessing lung function to discover the underlying causes of the respiratory disorders that are so prevalent in the children from the first study.
Lead researcher Professor Neil Marlow, says: "Since our first study we're finding that the number of extremely premature babies who survive has increased dramatically. What we now need to find out is whether the outcome has also improved and also how being born early might affect the surviving child's health and social development in the future."