Certain types of bacteria in a pregnant woman’s cervix and vagina can affect her risk of preterm birth, a new study finds.
The discovery could lead to new ways to prevent preterm birth (before 37 weeks of pregnancy) either by getting rid of bad bacteria or boosting protective bacteria, according to the researchers.
For the study, the investigators analyzed vaginal swabs from 2,000 expectant mothers at three different points in pregnancy.
The researchers found that specific types of bacteria — such as certain bifidobacterium and lactobacillus species — lowered the risk of preterm birth. They also found that other types of bacteria — specifically several anaerobic bacteria — greatly increased the risk.
If further research confirms the findings, it could lead to new treatments to reduce the risk of preterm birth, the study authors suggested.
“For the first time in eight years, the number of preterm babies in the United States actually increased in 2016, and unfortunately, there are underlying causes that doctors still don’t understand,” said study lead author Dr. Michal Elovitz, of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
“Decoding the causes of prematurity has been a riddle that’s stumped researchers and clinicians for years, but our new study is finally shedding some light on a path toward offering treatment to women we can identify as being at-risk,” she said in a university news release.
Elovitz is the director of the university’s Maternal and Child Health Research Center, and a co-investigator for the March of Dimes’ Prematurity Research Center at the university.
Preterm birth is the leading cause of death among babies in the United States. It’s also the leading cause of death of children under age 5 worldwide, the study authors noted. Survivors of preterm birth may face serious and lifelong health problems.
The study was presented at a recent Society of Maternal Fetal Medicine meeting in Las Vegas. Findings presented at meetings are generally viewed as preliminary until they’ve been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on preterm birth.