Hormone Can Help Stop Premature Births

 
by Paul Elias, Detroit News and the Associated Press, February 7, 2003

In a groundbreaking study, researchers said Thursday the hormone progesterone can help prevent premature births in a surprisingly high number of high-risk pregnancies.

"The evidence of this treatment's effectiveness was so dramatic, the research was stopped early," said Dr. Paul Meis of Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.

Progesterone is naturally produced by the ovaries, and it softens the uterus lining into a spongy bed that holds a fertilized egg. Doctors have prescribed it for years to help infertile and menopausal women, but there had been limited research into its effect on premature births.

The study found weekly injections of the hormone reduced the chance of premature births by 34 percent in 306 high-risk women. An additional 153 women were injected with a placebo. All the women previously gave birth prematurely, the single biggest indication of risk.

"The results are so good that it's surprising," said Dr. Fredric Frigoletto, chief of obstetrics at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. "No intervention that we have ever applied has had any measurable effect. This is very good news."

Meis presented the results at the annual meeting of the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine.

In 2001, about 476,000 babies were born prematurely in the United States, a 27 percent increase since 1981, according to the March of Dimes. One in eight babies was born before the 37th week of pregnancy, which is considered full term.

Babies born prematurely are at increased risk for neurological, hearing and behavioral problems.

Some of the increase in premature births can be attributed to more older women giving birth and the explosion of obesity in the country, said Dr. Nancy Green, a New York pediatrician and medical director of the March of Dimes. Half of premature births have no known cause.

The March of Dimes said black women give birth prematurely at disproportionately high rates: 17.5 percent of all births to black women last year were premature, compared with the national average of 11.9 percent.