Health Beat

Health Beat: Bacteria and preterm birth

Health Beat: Bacteria and preterm birth

PHILADELPHIA - Infants born sooner than 37 weeks can face a lifetime of neurological and physical problems.

"Going home without your baby, I think, is one of the most difficult things that a mother can do," said Jessica Farber.

And yet, one in 10 mothers like Farber, who had two preemies, leaves her baby in intensive care.

Fortunately, Farber's children, now ages three and 10, are healthy, but as a nurse herself, Farber knew exactly what preterm birth could cause.

"Infants who are preterm are at risk for lung disease and eye problems and a number of neurological problems and a number of other physical conditions," Farber explained.

For years, doctors assumed the trouble started in the uterus, but one researcher led a study on the cervix, asking the questions:

"What if the uterus happened second? What if the cervicovaginal space, which is open to the environment, looks like the gut? What if it acts like the gut?" asked Dr. Michal Elovitz, vice chair of translational research at the University of Pennsylvania. "So, we started asking, what are the microbial communities there? What is the immune response there? How does that change the properties and the structure of the cervix?"

Understanding how that cervical bacteria works could help decrease the number of preterm births.

Farber's children are thriving now, but their preterm births required constant monitoring, doctor visits, and therapy.

"I look at them in awe every day, and I think most parents do that to some degree, but I look at them and think, 'Oh my gosh. We've come so far," she said.

Different bacterial species are associated with a dramatic increased risk of preterm birth. If the results of the study are confirmed, doctors might have a way to determine who's at risk and intervene earlier with treatment to stop early delivery.


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