Premature births in Israel dropped during first COVID lockdown

The rate of premature births went down to 4.6% of all births in 2020, while in 2019 it was 5.3%.

Premature birth (photo credit: REUTERS)
Premature birth
(photo credit: REUTERS)
An unexpected silver lining of the coronavirus lockdown is a significant reduction in the number of premature births across the country, according to Prof. Tzipi Strauss, head of neonatology at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer.
“Following the first lockdown, we saw an approximately 10% reduction in the number of babies born prematurely,” she said. She noticed that following the first lockdown, the neonatal ward was much emptier than usual and she checked with colleagues around the country to see if this was also the case at other hospitals, which it was.
The rate of premature births went down to 4.6% of all births in 2020, while in 2019 it was 5.3%.
Between March and May 2020, some 200 fewer premature births than the year before were recorded, a drop of about 10% from the previous year.
Other countries are reporting similar trends. There has been a reduction in premature births during the COVID-19 pandemic in Holland, Ireland and Denmark, according to studies published in The Lancet and other journals.
This is extremely positive news for many reasons. Premature births are the leading cause of infant mortality globally. With fewer premature babies, there is less stress on families of the newborns and on the hospitals where they are born. Caring for premature infants, many of whom can have lifelong health problems, costs the healthcare system billions of shekels, so any reduction in their numbers will result in meaningful savings.
Strauss speculated that a number of factors could have contributed to this reduction. One is that because of the lockdown, there was a drop in air pollution. Another is that more pregnant women were at home and were not doing jobs that cause physical stress, such as work that requires standing all day or lifting heavy loads, which can lead to preterm births.
Another possible cause could be the fact that many women may have eaten better during lockdown, having nutritious meals at home rather than snacks on the job. It also could be that women who smoke outside their homes did not do so when they were at home during lockdown.
Another factor could be that women avoided going to hospitals early on in the pandemic, and that pregnancy complications that might have led doctors to perform cesarean sections or to induce labor were not diagnosed, and these pregnancies ended up going full term anyway.
Strauss said she does not think any one factor caused the change.
“I don’t think it was just one cause,” she said. “Gynecologists and researchers will need to study this phenomenon now and try to get answers.”
While the data are not yet in from the second lockdown, Strauss does not think that the findings will be the same. “The second lockdown was not as hermetic. People were out more, people worked more, there was more traffic.”
But while the effect may not be as marked, “we are still interested in studying it,” she said.