Researchers analyzed the use of prenatal corticosteroid injections in more than 300,000 births in 29 countries, and found that only 52 percent of women eligible to receive the simple and effective treatment actually get it.
This is despite the fact that corticosteroids given before birth have been shown to significantly lower preterm infants' risk of death, breathing problems, bleeding in the brain, and long-term complications such as cerebral palsy and poor motor skills, the researchers said.
Rates of steroids given before birth ranges from 16 percent to 20 percent of eligible women in Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nepal and Niger to 88 percent in the Occupied Palestinian territory and 91 percent in Jordan.
The findings were published online Aug. 13 in The Lancet.
About 15 million babies (more than 10 percent) worldwide are born prematurely every year, and about 1 million of them die. Many who survive have long-term issues, including learning disabilities and vision and hearing problems.
"Giving corticosteroids to women at risk of preterm birth is one of the most effective treatments for reducing newborn death and illness. More than three-quarters of premature babies could be saved with [these] cost-effective interventions," study leader Dr. Joshua Vogel, of the department of Reproductive Health and Research at the World Health Organization, said in a journal news release.
"This is particularly important in Africa and Asia, where more than 60 percent of preterm deliveries occur and where resources are scarce and it is difficult to provide expensive neonatal care," he added.
But a group of researchers from the University of Auckland in New Zealand believe that prenatal steroids are not the panacea for preterm mortality in these countries. "Rather, the drugs should be included in a set of simple efficacious measures -- family planning, access to [prenatal] care, antibiotic drugs for premature rupture of membranes, immediate and simple care for all babies, effective neonatal resuscitation, and kangaroo mother care," said Stuart Dalziel, Caroline Crowther and Jane Harding in an accompanying commentary.
Future research should focus on ways to increase the appropriate use of steroids before birth, they added.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about preterm birth.