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|March 4, 2000|
Expert warns about premature babies
A doctor who has followed 150 premature babies into their teens has discovered that children born early and weighing less than or two pounds at birth run a higher risk of problems such as mental retardation, vision and hearing problems, cerebral palsy and learning problems. The problems followed the children into their teen years.
"Basically I want people to know that these children are at very high risk," said Dr Saroj Saigal, a professor of pediatrics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, who led the study.
Medical reports about the investigation of premature baby syndrome have shown that prematurity is on the rise, not only because of an increase in multiple births but also due to older women having babies. Medical advances in recent years have enabled many tiniest babies to survive.
"These findings should make parents, doctors and educators know that it is urgent that these children get help early," said Dr Saigal, whose study was published in the February issue of the journal, Pediatrics.
For every 1,000 birth, there are three premature infants born and this usually occurs in the 37th week of pregnancy. In the United States, about 11 per cent of the four million births are premature. This figure is up nine per cent from a decade ago and the increase is attributed to the use of fertility births.
"I wanted to raise awareness," Dr Saigal said. She followed the 150 babies born in Ontario between 1977 and 1982 into their teens and found that academic difficulties at age eight persisted into the teenage years.
Those studied were born two or three months early and weighed between one pound two ounces and two pounds four ounces at birth. She assessed the children periodically -- she saw them once a month until age three, six times a year until age five, and once a year at ages five, eight, and 16.
Her research also found that less than half of the children scored in the normal range on achievement and other intelligence tests.
Dr Saigal lived in New Delhi before immigrating to Canada in 1968, where she trained at the neonatology in Royal Victoria Hospital, Montreal, before moving to McMaster.
"I was very intrigued by premature babies. It was a very new field then and I wanted to specialize in it," said Dr Saigal, who adds that the field has progressed a long way with the influx of technology.
She is reluctant to divulge any personal details about herself, including age, marital status and other personal information.
"I find that all irrelevant. I want my work to speak for itself," she said, while admitting there were no physicians in her family.
Dr Saigal said she receives many letters from parents of prematurely-born children thanking her for her work.
For example, her warnings about detecting problems in premature babies made a lot of sense to Sharmista Guha.
"My heart almost stopped beating when my daughter was born prematurely, but today I cannot tell the difference," said Guha, who four-year-old daughter Rupali is in a pre-school program.
Rupali, born at the Albany Medical Center, in Albany, NY, was taken to the neo-natal unit at birth.
"She has thrived and bloomed because doctors constantly monitored her for three months and after that I had to bring her in for check-ups twice a week and then weekly," Guha said.
Now that is Dr Saroj Saigal's kind of success story.
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