London - Half of all premature births could be prevented using simple tests and antibiotics, say scientists.
Around 60 000 babies are born prematurely each year – or about one in 12 of all deliveries.
Researchers from Imperial College London believe that up to 30 000 of these births are caused by treatable infections.
They have developed a three-minute test to identify whether women are suffering from infections and if they could be given antibiotics to delay birth.
Similar to a smear test for cervical cancer, it would look for harmful bacteria in the reproductive system which could then be treated with antibiotics. A birth is considered premature if the baby is born before 37 weeks - three weeks before a normal delivery at 40 weeks.
Although premature births are relatively common, little is known about why they occur and how they can be prevented.
Babies born prematurely are much more likely to have breathing complications and heart problems, and the risk increases the earlier they are born.
READ: Cutting risk of premature birth
One theory as to why women go into labour prematurely is that they are suffering from an infection which causes their womb to become inflamed and contract. Only last week scientists in the US revealed that they had developed a blood test that can identify women at risk of inflammation using their genes.
The British screening method is different in that it looks for bacteria inside the woman’s womb and reproductive system. Researchers hope to offer it to women at risk of premature birth during routine scans at 12 and 20 weeks.
Those at risk include women who have had premature births before or a miscarriage in the second trimester, and those who have an abnormally short cervix, which protects the womb from infection.
It is hoped all women will soon be offered the test during routine scans in order to prevent premature births and save lives.
Lead researcher Dr David MacIntyre said: "At this stage we’re in early development with the test but we’re really excited about the potential it holds."