Maternal obesity increases risk of newborn death in sub-Saharan Africa

New research published online in The Lancet indicates that babies born to mothers who are overweight or obese in sub-Saharan Africa, where rates of obesity are projected to increase at an alarming rate during the next two decades, are significantly more likely to die in the first two days after their birth. The study is the first to shed light on the role of maternal obesity in neonatal death (during the first 28 days of life) in developing countries.

“Sub-Saharan Africa already has the highest rates of neonatal death in the world. Whilst overall levels of obesity are currently fairly low by global standards, obesity is actually a rapidly emerging problem, with 5 percent of women presently classed as obese,” explains lead author Jenny Cresswell from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

By 2030, over a quarter of adults (almost 186 million) are predicted to be overweight in sub-Saharan Africa, and nearly a fifth of adults will be obese. Babies born to obese mothers are at increased risk of a range of complications including admission to neonatal care, macrosomia (excessive birth weight), low Apgar score [a test that assesses the health of newborns immediately after birth], and death.

The new analysis is based on data from The Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) from 27 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The researchers analyzed over 81,000 pregnancies involving deliveries of single babies between 2003 and 2009 to assess the risk of neonatal death by a mother’s body mass index (BMI).

The estimates suggest that babies of obese mothers had about 50 percent greater odds of their baby dying in the first four weeks of life (adjusted odds ratio 1.46) than women who were of optimum weight, even after adjusting for certain factors known to affect the risk of neonatal death including maternal age, educational level, and birth order.

This association was strongest in the first two days of life when the odds of neonatal death was 62 percent greater for obese women and 32 percent higher for overweight women compared with mothers of optimum weight.

The authors conclude, “This is the first time maternal obesity has been recognized as a risk factor in this setting. We now need more research to confirm the exact causes of death for these babies and a strategy to educate women in these countries about maintaining a healthy weight during pregnancy.”

In a linked comment, Ellen Nohr from Aarhus University in Denmark says, “The findings from sub-Saharan Africa are in accordance with previous studies on maternal obesity and neonatal survival from high income countries, which is reassuring in a scientific sense but also alarming. These findings force us to see the global burden of obesity on reproductive health in a new perspective, where complications attributable to maternal obesity in low-income countries may far outnumber the burden seen in affluent countries.”

She adds, “Good longitudinal data … could reveal causes that are easily prevented if obese women are screened for diseases during pregnancy and deliver in a facility with emergency obstetric and neonatal care.”

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