The problem of preterm babies is increasing in South Africa, with one in seven babies born prematurely.

The problem of preterm babies is increasing in South Africa, with one in seven babies born prematurely. Furthermore, approximately 250 000 babies are born to HIV positive mothers every year. Even if a baby is born HIV negative, having been exposed to the virus in the womb can have negative effects such as preterm birth, low birth weight and a compromised immune system.

Dr Nadia Chanzu-Ikumi, University of Cape Town (UCT) researcher at the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine, says: “Three-quarters of the deaths due to complications arising from preterm birth are preventable - if only we would have better access to healthcare.”

Every year 15 million babies worldwide are born prematurely. According to the World Health Organisation, around one million of them die due to complications. Many factors contribute to this staggering number of preterm deaths, including poor nutrition, mental ill-health, alcohol and smoking.

With her research, Chanzu-Ikumi is trying to understand what influence the HIV infection has on the immune system of the mother and consequently how that affects the unborn child.

Researchers need to start thinking about the health of babies before they are born. There is a strong movement towards exploring all aspects of the first critical 1000 days of life (the first two years outside the womb), since this period has a profound impact on the child’s development. This research includes the first two years after birth, but most importantly it also explores the babies’ health during the nine months in the womb.

“Early in my career, when I was working on a study involving HIV prevalence in Kenyan women, I came across the phenomenon of HIV-positive mothers having a higher risk of premature births. Often, even if these women carry their babies to term, the babies are born underweight and with compromised immune systems,” says Chanzu-Ikumi.

In 2015 Chanzu-Ikumi became the first African postdoctoral fellow, awarded by the AXA Research Fund, at UCT. The Fund is the scientific philanthropy initiative of global insurance leader AXA dedicated to boosting scientific discoveries that contribute to societal progress. It also encourages researchers to engage with the general audience and feed the public debate.

Chanzu-Ikumi recently appeared in a video series published by the AXA Research Fund called Motherhood. It explores how to give babies the best start in life and investigates how environmental exposure could alter the developing immune systems of unborn babies, also highlighting the importance of the first 1000 Days. In her interview, she talks about the risks for babies exposed to the HIV virus in utero such as preterm births or low birth weight.

Dr Chanzu-Ikumi explains: “The idea behind the video is to create awareness about how the health of babies in utero can be affected by the external environment and the health of the mother.”

According to Dr Chanzu-Ikumi, the better we understand the effects the environment and other external factors have on the development of babies, the more we can accommodate a healthy start for them in life.