Updated: 27th June, 2024

Lifesaving Innovations for Preterm Babies

The first month in a newborn's life is one of the most daunting (and exhausting!) experiences for every parent—no matter where you live. Several years ago, I met a new mom in a clinic outside of Dakar, Senegal. She had just given birth to her fifth child. She was exhausted and she was scared that her baby—only a few hours old—may not survive her first month of life.

No mother, no father, no family should greet a newborn with the fear that they may not survive the day, a week, a month. This should be the furthest thing from their minds. We can do something about it. Since 1990, thanks to vaccines and other innovations, the world has made tremendous progress in cutting childhood deaths in half to fewer than five million each year. Bill Gates likes to call this the most beautiful chart in the world.

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Yet this is still too many children dying—nearly half of them in the first month alone—that could have been saved by making critical healthcare solutions affordable and accessible. As I shared earlier this year, Gates Philanthropy Partners has been working to identify and invest in a wide array of simple, cost-effective innovations for mothers, newborns, and children that anyone can access.

To learn more about two exciting treatments for preterm babies—that specifically target gut and lung health—I spoke with my colleagues Vanessa K. Ridaura, PhD, and Cicely W. Fadel, MD, PhD, senior program officers of the Maternal, Newborn, Child Nutrition & Health team at the Gates Foundation.

Gut Health

Bifidobacterium infantis is a critical bacterium in early childhood that resides in the gut of healthy infants. This bacterium helps new babies absorb nutrients from breast milk, helps equip the immune system so it can protect the baby from harmful bacteria, lowers the risk of early death, and lays the foundation for long-term gut health.

As Dr. Ridaura notes, "that early period from birth up to the first six months of life is a key period for the gut microbiome.”

Preterm babies, and babies born with a low birth weight, lack this bacterium in their gut—which is where probiotics come in.

The Gates Foundation is funding research that will allow us to better generate the body of evidence demonstrating the safety and efficacy data needed to introduce high-quality infant probiotics in Global South geographies. Expanding the use of infant probiotics containing B. infantis for at-risk infants—including those whose growth falters in the first six months of life—has the potential to save 380,000 infants by 2030 and over 1 million infants by 2040.

Lung Health

Supporting the healthy lung development of premature infants is another game changer for newborns. Preterm babies are often born with only small amounts of lung surfactant: a soap-like substance found within the air sacs of the lungs that keeps the walls of these sacs from collapsing. Without surfactant, taking each breath is exceptionally hard and can lead to serious complications and even death if left untreated. In low- and middle-income countries, liquid surfactant is costly and there are fewer trained healthcare professionals who can readily intubate a small baby to deliver it.

“Lung surfactant is a solution where the impact and the science are clear,” says Dr. Fadel.

The Gates Foundation is partnering with Virginia Commonwealth University to develop a cheaper synthetic dry powder drug and a simple delivery device for lung surfactant that can be administered as an aerosol anywhere in the world. These latest innovations are estimated to help cut the cost per dose from $100 to $10-$20. Bill believes the world can cut childhood death in half again by 2040, and solutions like these will play a crucial role, especially in the first month of life. If you’re interested in supporting life-saving innovations to end preventable deaths for newborns, contact us at [email protected].

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