On August 16, 2008, Ghazala Khamis from Egypt gave birth to septuplets — seven babies! The babies each weighed over three pounds and constituted only the fourth set of surviving septuplets in recorded history. The McCaugheys, born in 1997 in the United States, were the first set of surviving septuplets.
As a pediatrician, I can’t help but marvel at the progress that medical science has taken in the past 30 years.
In 1973, when Edna Stanek was pregnant with sextuplets, she was injected with alcohol and told to drink three ounces of vodka a day in order to relax the uterus and prevent preterm labor. When her babies were born, premature lungs resulted in the death of one of her babies within days of birth.
Today, Ghazala and her babies have the benefit of modern medicine. All seven babies have survived and will likely fare well.
What has resulted in the most profound change in outcome for twins, multiples, and other babies at risk for premature birth?
Surfactant is a natural chemical in the lungs that allows the lungs to expand normally. Premature babies lack this chemical, resulting in respiratory distress syndrome (RDS). Babies with RDS have difficulty breathing and many died from the disease before the invention of replacement surfactant. In 1990, the FDA approved the use of artificially produced surfactant and surfactant has resulted in the dramatic survival of premature babies ever since. Dr. John Clements from the University of California, San Francisco (my alma mater!) was the genius behind this amazing discovery.
Research in the 1980s proved that injecting mothers in preterm labor with betamethasone (a corticosteroid) resulted in a 40-60% reduction in RDS in premature newborns. Subsequent research has also demonstrated a decrease in brain bleeds and intestinal damage.
Tocolytics are medications that relax the uterine muscles and help with controlling preterm contractions. Since 1973, vodka is obviously no longer used in mainstream medicine for the prevention of preterm labor. Powerful muscle relaxants are now available to doctors. By holding off premature birth even for a day to allow betamethasone to take effect, babies have a substantially greater chance of survival.
The birth of 7 surviving babies is a truly amazing event — one that has been made possible by advances in modern medicine. If you are currently pregnant, you can rest assured that you and your babies are receiving the best medical care in history.