Intensive care babies thrive under neonatal care

High-risk newborn babies admitted to the highest-level intensive care units in Australia and New Zealand have a 91% chance of surviving, according to a report released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and the University of Sydney.

Australian and New Zealand Neonatal Network 1998 was compiled in cooperation with all of Australia and New Zealands 29 neonatal intensive care units. The units have formed a network in the interests of improving high-risk newborn infant care through collaborative research and auditing of outcomes.

New Zealand network coordinator, Associate Professor Brian Darlow, said the good results were a reflection of the trans-Tasman collaboration and the dedication of the people who work with these babies to maintain and improve their high standard of care.

High-risk babies born between 29 and 36 weeks have at least a 95% chance of survival now. A baby in this high-risk group is more likely to die in the first two days of their life or within a week so the level of care that they receive is critical.

High-risk babies include those admitted to a level III neonatal intensive care unit who:

  • were born at less than 32 weeks gestation; or
  • weighed less than 1500 grams; or
  • received assisted ventilation for four or more consecutive hours; or
  • received major surgery.

Approximately 6,400 babies in Australia and New Zealand met one or more of these criteria in 1998, representing around 2% of all births.

The report also showed very good uptake of three procedures recommended by the National Health and Medical Research Council:

  • the use of Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICU) to care for very preterm high-risk babies. About 91% of these babies were born in a hospital with an NICU on site;
  • the administration of corticosteroids to mothers at least 24 hours before an impending premature birth; and
  • use of exogenous surfactant for respiratory distress syndrome in infants (caused by immaturity and deficiency of surfactant, which lines the lung surface and helps keep it inflated).

The steroids enhance fetal lung maturation, and were given to 86% of mothers prior to a pre-term birth.

Other results from Australian and New Zealand Neonatal Network 1998 include:

  • more than one-quarter of babies born at less than 32 weeks gestation were from a multiple birth
  • around 58% of the high-risk newborns were male, compared with 51% of all births in Australia.
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