Could bacteria be the cause of some premature births?

Preterm birth — defined as a child born before 37 weeks of pregnancy — is the leading cause of neurological disorders and death among infants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On top of that, preterm births cost society more than $26 billion a year, according to the National Academy of Medicine.

The March of Dimes reported that African-American women continue to experience preterm birth at higher percentages than other ethnicities — and there’s not a clear reason why. Some studies show a correlation between bacteria cultures isolated from patients who have preterm deliveries; however, there’s not a lot of data on the topic.

Investigating the Cause

In my field as an OB/GYN hospitalist, I saw this reality firsthand and wanted to investigate the underlying cause. Along with Marie Hastings-Tolsma CNM, PhD, a nurse-midwifery scientist, I decided to build a team of several skilled providers at Baylor Scott & White Research Institute and the Baylor School of Nursing to collaborate on a study that examines the biological makeup of bacteria that resides in the birth canal as it relates to preterm delivery.

It is my guess that there are certain bacteria — probably infection-causing bacteria (similar to how E. coli causes food poisoning or how H. pylori causes stomach ulcers) — that begin to colonize the birth canal, leading to spontaneous preterm birth. I believe it could be more prevalent in African-American women. If we are able to identify an organism that might be unique to preterm births, we can begin to look for it in women of all races.

I’d like to see us identify those bacteria and eventually get rid of it by treatment, potentially decreasing preterm births in all races. By doing this, we could decrease the infant mortality rate and cut health care costs.

We’ll begin our study by testing pregnant (20 weeks gestation or less) African-American women between the ages of 18 and 45 at their time of enrollment; at 23 weeks gestation; at 28 weeks gestation; and finally at delivery. We’ll review their diet and examine swab samples.

The study will begin in the next couple of months and end in August 2019.

To learn more information about the program and how you can participate, visit here.

About the author

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Adrianne Browning, MD, is an obstetrician/gynecologist on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center. She received her medical degree at University of Texas Southwestern Medical School and has been a recipient of awards and a member of several prestigious committees over the course of her career. After nearly seven years as a hospitalist at Baylor University Medical Center, she is now a member of a private practice in HTPN, BSWH Women’s Health Group.

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Could bacteria be the cause of some premature births?