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The study included more than 2,800 pregnant women with a high risk of late preterm delivery (34 to 36 weeks of pregnancy) who were randomly selected to receive two injections over 24 hours of either the steroid betamethasone or a placebo.
The steroid is commonly used to prevent complications in babies born before 34 weeks of pregnancy. A full-term pregnancy is considered to be 40 weeks.
Compared to babies born to mothers who received the placebo, babies born to mothers who received the steroid were much less likely to have severe respiratory complications shortly after birth, to require a long stay in the neonatal intensive care unit, or to need respiratory treatments.
The findings were published Feb. 4 in the New England Journal of Medicine.
"Our study demonstrates that administering a medication that is commonly used to prevent complications in babies born before 34 weeks of gestation can also reduce the risk of many serious complications in babies delivered just a few weeks before term," lead investigator Dr. Cynthia Gyamfi-Bannerman, an associate professor of women's health at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, said in a Columbia news release.
"This will transform the way we care for mothers at risk for late preterm delivery," added Gyamfi-Bannerman, who is also an obstetrician and maternal-fetal medicine specialist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, in New York City.
Each year, about 8 percent (more than 300,000) of babies born in the United States are late preterm births. About 12 percent of those babies have respiratory or other serious complications and require long stays in the neonatal intensive care unit, the researchers said.
"While survival among late preterm infants is comparable to that of babies born at term, the rate of respiratory problems and other serious complications in this group is not comparable and remains unacceptably high," Gyamfi-Bannerman said.
"Expanding the use of a well-studied, safe medication to improve lung development before birth offers a means of preventing many of these complications," she said.
-- Robert Preidt
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SOURCE: Columbia University Medical Center, news release, Feb. 4, 2016