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A faster, cheaper test to measure the risk of premature delivery?

The researchers found that the test among 365 pregnant women helped detect those at greater risk of premature birth. Overall, 73 women gave birth prematurely, and those who showed changing and divergent vaginal microbiome, along with inflammation, were at greater risk.

The findings was recently published online in the journal Nature communication.

More research is needed before the test becomes available. MacIntyre said his team is working to improve its performance and make the test device feasible for “bedside” use – by miniaturizing and automating it.

What can be done when women are found to be at increased risk of premature birth?

Currently, MacIntyre said, two options are available to limit the risk: the hormone progesterone, which can delay birth in some cases; and, in women with cervical weakness, insert a stitch to keep it closed.

But it’s also helpful to know when a woman is at greater risk so her midwife can monitor her more closely, said Stacey Stewart, president and CEO of the March of Dimes, which helped with the research.

Stewart called the new test “a big step forward” – but also noted that there would not be a single “silver bullet” answer to the problem of premature birth.

There are several risk factors for early delivery, Stewart pointed out. This includes having a history of premature birth or less than 18 months between pregnancies; health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes; and lifestyle habits such as smoke and drug abuse.

Furthermore, there are social and economic factors. Low-income women, lack of antenatal care, or exposure to chronic tension or domestic abuse is a greater risk.

In the United States, Stewart said, women of color are affected disproportionately: Nearly 17% of black babies are born prematurely each year, according to the March of Dimes.

While researchers are working on tests to better identify women at risk and understand the exact causes of premature birth, Stewart said women can take steps to support a healthy pregnancy.

Ideally, she said, they should work with their healthcare provider to get any chronic health conditions under control under pregnancy. And as soon as a woman knows she is pregnant, she should seek prenatal care.

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