As technology advances in every sector in South Africa, the field of medicine is not getting left behind. More specifically, micro premature babies (babies born between 22-28weeks) now have a surer fighting chance at this precious thing we call LIFE! Bio-mimicry of the natural womb is the method being adopted to sustain the lives of these precious little ones until they are fully developed and strong enough to go home. Given that one in seven babies born in South Africa are preemies, this technological advancement in modern medicine is making a remarkable difference for many South African families.
Micro Premature Babies
Unlike full-term babies (~40weeks) and preterm babies (34 to 37weeks), micro-prem babies are born between 22 and 28 weeks. These babies are born before they are fully developed (i.e. their lungs are often underdeveloped and in need of support whilst their skin may be extremely thin, barely two cell layers thick) and are therefore highly vulnerable after birth.
“There is an alarming upward trend in the number of preterm births in South Africa” says neonatologist Dr Ricky Dippenaar who heads up units at Capetown’s Blouberg and N1 City Netcare hospitals where he specialises in the care of these fragile ones. The reasons attributing to this are varied; ranging from pregnant women not receiving antenatal care early enough to pregnancy-related illnesses such as pre-eclampsia. This rising trend, he says, is also resulting from an increase in older first-time mothers as well as a higher occurrence of multiple pregnancies due to assisted fertilisation and fertility drugs
Bio-mimicry of the mother’s womb
“Modern technology is increasingly adopting principles of bio-mimicry for these infants in an effort to artificially recreate the mother’s womb through the use of state-of-the-art humidifying incubators,” states Dr Pienaar.
The micro-prem babies in these humidifying incubators are barely visible through the water vapour mist inside the incubator as they are tenderly cared for by highly skilled nursing professionals within a low-light, low-sound environment. The baby’s umbilical vessels which had previously provided nutrition, blood and growth hormones from the mother are reconnected to artificial lines to re-establish nutritional stability; and the baby’s skin is also assisted to mature by coating it with artificial emollients which mimic natural vernix which coats babies’ skin in the womb.
“Life-saving breastmilk from the mother is fed to the baby via a tube as soon as possible after birth. This helps to further establish the child’s immune defences and provides all important growth hormones. The benefits of breastmilk, as well as maternal bonding in the form of kangaroo care, a method of caring for premature babies whereby the infants are held skin-to-skin by a parent, are pivotal to reducing medical conditions such as allergies, childhood obesity and asthma. In addition, they assist with the development of the brain in these extremely fragile infants,” explains Dr Dippenaar.
A micro-prem mommy bears testimony
Although, the early stages after the birth of a highly premature baby can be a very stressful time for the parents and family, Dr. Dippenaar reassures:
“…it is nowadays almost routine practise for specialised units with skilled personnel to not only keep micro-prem infants weighing 500g alive, but also to discharge them home healthy. Fortunately, we are seeing hospital groups such as Netcare placing increasing emphasis on this all-important aspect of medicine, and are equipping specialised NICUs at their hospitals with state-of-the-art incubators and other life-saving technology which enables medical practitioners and nursing teams to provide the required care.”
Zanele, a young woman who only realised she was pregnant at 22 weeks had to have an emergency C-section and gave birth to her baby at 25 weeks. Inspite of all they’ve gone through, she and her baby are doing well. Talk 702 met up with her recently and she gives her own account of the process via a podcasted interview with Barbara Friedman.
While highly premature babies may take longer to develop a robust immune system during the formative years, they do eventually catch up and live normally –thanks to bio-mimicry technological advancement in modern medicine!