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Sunday, 6 February, 2000, 01:21 GMT
Test safer for unborn babies
Premature babies need developed lungs
A test developed by US scientists could help thousands of women hit by a common - but dangerous - pregnancy complication.

When the membrane enclosing the unborn child ruptures, usually later in pregnancy, doctors have to decide whether to try to deliver the baby prematurely, or try to wait until the child is more developed.

However, the longer they wait, the more risk there is of an infection which could be serious for both mother and child.

The team from the University of Florida have discovered a much safer variation on a well-established test which can tell if the baby's lungs are developed enough to breathe properly.

The old-fashioned test involved taking a sample of amniotic fluid - the liquid which surrounds the baby in the womb - with a long needle.

Infection could threaten mother and child
Although this procedure is frequently used early in pregnancy to test for conditions such as Down's syndrome, most UK doctors consider it too dangerous to carry out later, when there is a much greater chance of harming the larger foetus.

The scientists have found that it can be just as effective to take a sample of fluid from the vagina or the neck of the womb, removing the need to use the long needle.

Dr Rodney Edwards, who was involved in the project, said: "The fear had been that vaginal discharge, bacteria and mucus would interfere with obtaining an accurate measure of lung development. But we found this was not a problem at all.

Better to deliver

"It has been shown by other researchers that if a patient with ruptured membranes is between 32 and 36 weeks' gestation, and tests indicate mature fetal lungs, the outcome of both mother and baby will be improved with immediate delivery rather than waiting for labour."

Mr Derek Tuffnell, a consultant obstetrician from Bradford Royal Infirmary, said that the extra safety might encourage more UK doctors to use the procedure.

He said: "If you had a test which was simple to do and gave reliable results, you might well try it."

The test looks for the presence of fats in the fluid which are linked to "surfactants", vital fluids needed to develop the baby's lungs.

Without these soap-like chemicals, the lungs cannot open out fully after birth, and the baby will find it very difficult to breathe - a condition known as "respiratory distress".

This can lead to a downward spiral of further complications.

It is one of the biggest problems faced by neo-natal intensive care experts, who often give artificial surfactants to help the baby.

See also:

05 Jan 99 | Health
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