A high incidence of low birthweight babies creates a heavy public health burden in developing countries, both in terms of infant mortality and in terms of life-time care for those that survive but are physically or mentally handicapped. The high rates of morbidity and mortality arising from preterm birth impose an immense burden on the health, education and social services and on families.
More than 20 million infants worldwide, representing 15.5 per cent of all births, are born with low birthweight, 95.6 per cent of them in developing countries. The incidence of preterm birth lies between 5 and 10 per cent of all births in developed countries. Preterm birth is responsible for two thirds of neonatal deaths in the United States and 85% of early neonatal deaths not due to lethal congenital deformities in England. The level of low birthweight in developing countries (16.5 per cent) is more than double the level in developed regions. Half of all low birthweight babies are born in South-central Asia, where more than a quarter (27 per cent) of all infants weigh less than 2,500 g at birth. And more than 40 per cent of babies are born at home and without a skilled attendant.