Premature babies are a costly item!

According to researchers in Britain premature babies are a costly item amounting to as much as an extra £939 million a year.

The researchers at the Oxford Centre for Health Economics say a baby born 10 weeks prematurely needs constant monitoring and more funding for research into ways to prevent and delay premature births could save £260 million a year.

Premature babies are classified as those arriving at least 3 weeks early, when they have spent fewer than 37 weeks in the womb - babies born very early, particularly before 28 weeks, are much more at risk of medical complications, learning difficulties or other handicaps that affect their development.

In a study which calculated what the costs would be for all the preterm babies born in 2006 over the first 18 years of their life, healthcare, education and the costs to their parents of having to have more time off work were taken into account and the economic burden associated with preterm birth was revealed.

The study was financed by Tommy's Baby Charity which says it is the first research to examine the total cost to the public of preterm births.

Professor Peter Brocklehurst, from Oxford University's Perinatal Epidemiology Unit, says the extent to which the costs associated with preterm birth are an economic burden has previously received little attention and shows that more effort needs to be spent on preventing preterm births.

Tommy's chief executive Jane Brewin says the UK rate of premature birth is rising and this mammoth cost is set to grow even larger - she says while advances in neonatal care had improved the likelihood of such babies surviving, they still faced considerable difficulties such as chronic lung disease, haemorrhaging in the brain, eye problems, digestive tract problems and an increased risk of infection.

The researchers assigned a probability and cost to possible outcomes including the need for neonatal care, mild disability, moderate disability, severe disability and death and calculated that 66.4% of the total cost is incurred by those born only moderately prematurely between 33-36 weeks - almost all the extra costs stemmed from when premature babies are in hospital just after birth.

The research revealed that the cost of average an preterm baby is one and a half times more than a baby born full term.

Tommy's is currently funding three medical research centres that are investigating the cause of premature birth, miscarriage and stillbirth and the organisation says this will enable early treatment to prolong the pregnancy and improve the chances for mother and baby.

Experts say current treatments are ineffective at delaying labour by more than a couple of days and if that could be improved to a week it may make a significant difference to the health of the baby.

The Department of Health says a taskforce has been established to support the NHS in identifying and delivering real improvements to neonatal services.

In 2006, 669,600 babies were born in England and Wales, of which 47,982 were premature.

The study is published in the U.S. journal, Pediatrics.

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