War has caused an apparent rise in premature births in Ukraine, international health agency Unitaid said Tuesday, as it announced oxygen equipment deliveries to health centres in the country to help them cope.

Russia’s February invasion “increases levels of stress in pregnant women, which leads to an increase in the number of premature births reported”, Unitaid spokesman Herve Verhoosel told reporters in Geneva.

“Babies born prematurely are more likely to develop respiratory, neurological or digestive complications — conditions that often require oxygen for treatment.”

Unitaid, which works on ensuring equitable access to medical innovations, said it provided 220 bubble nasal continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) devices and 125 oxygen blender systems to supply infants with breathing support and oxygen therapy.

“The conflict in Ukraine has seen many hospitals damaged or destroyed, and supply chains have been severed,” Verhoosel added.

“This puts thousands of newborns at high risk of disability or death from a lack in access to oxygen, necessary equipment, and essential treatments.”

Premature babies are those born at least three weeks before a full 40-week pregnancy.

Verhoosel said that in some of the Ukrainian hospitals Unitaid is working with, the premature baby rate had gone up from 12 percent to 40 percent since Russia invaded.

Though a larger number of uncomplicated births are now taking place at home, the increase in premature births “is real”, he said.

Bubble CPAP is a non-invasive way of ventilating newborns who are struggling to breathe, while oxygen blenders prevent eye, lung, and brain damage associated with giving babies pure oxygen, said Unitaid.

The portable device allows for the precise delivery of oxygen concentration, flow, and pressure which can greatly improve the chances for newborns and infants.

The Bubble CPAP system costs less than $500 per unit to produce and can work round the clock for three years without recharging.

It is used in several African countries, Belgium and the United States.

– Attacks on healthcare –

Ukrainian neonatologists and paediatricians have been trained in using the devices chiefly online and in Krakow in neighbouring Poland.

The systems are now available in 25 referral facilities across Ukraine.

“That’s obviously not enough for the country,” but 225 units was “a good start”, Verhoosel said.

The World Health Organization has verified 434 attacks on healthcare in Ukraine since the Russian invasion, including 366 that impacted on health facilities.

When hospitals are under attack, “one of the critical things is having something like this that can function when you’ve got no electricity,” WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris told reporters.

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