Tiny lives in best of hands
02 February 2002

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Jennifer and Wayne O'Connell feel their tiny premature twins are in the right place.

It turns out they are right. What they know from experience is backed up by statistics.

Dunedin Hospital's neo-natal intensive care unit cares for more than its fair share of the country's tiniest, most fragile babies but they are in some of the safest hands in the world. The babies can weigh as little as a block of butter and still stand a good chance of staying alive, national and international figures show.

When Mrs O'Connell gave birth while only 30 weeks pregnant (a full-term pregnancy is 40 weeks), son Cameron was not breathing and weighed only 1.74kg, her husband said.

Daughter Hayley was 1.37kg and "no bigger than my hand".

After a month in the unit, Cameron weighs 2kg and had his first feed from a bottle yesterday. Hayley is now an old hand at bottle feeding and weighs just over 2kg.

"They couldn't be in better hands," Mr O'Connell said.

It was the Dunedin couple's second experience in the unit. Their 16-month-old daughter Gemma spent a couple of weeks there after being born with jaundice.

Mrs O'Connell said the staff always "treat you like family".

And they certainly have a large family.

Of all babies born at Dunedin hospital in 1999, 1.6 percent weighed less than 1.5kg. That meant the hospital nurtured 31 tiny lives that year, according to the Ministry of Health's recently released Report on Maternity.

The only other hospitals in Dunedin's league that year were in the Waikato and the Hutt (both 1.4 percent).

Dr Ronald Broadbent, of Dunedin, said babies weighing about 500g had about a 50 percent survival rate, rising to 95 percent when babies were 1kg. That was better than in Britain and the United States.

The numbers of small babies suriving was rising because of more sophisticated equipment. There was no longer a strong probability of death for babies born before their mothers had been pregnant for 28 weeks. The time-frame for viability had shifted over the past 25 years to about 23 weeks.

Roughly a third of premature babies were multiple births and multiple births were on the increase, probably because of fertility treatments.

The key to keeping the tiniest babies alive was often a combination of technology and noticing any small changes which could threaten babies' lives, he said.