In a report released this week by the WHO, nearly one million newborns died due to complications from early births while millions more survive with disabilities throughout their lives.
Figures show that pre-term birth rates have not changed in the past decade in any region of the world.
Pre-term birth is the single largest killer of children under the age of five, accounting for more than one in three of all deaths within the first month of life, according to the United Nations and its partners. Globally, they say, one pre-term baby is born every two seconds.
Anshu Banerjee, the WHO’s director for the Department of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health and Aging, said urgent action is needed to prevent premature labor and improve care for affected infants and mothers.
"We need to reorient our healthcare system much more to a primary healthcare approach," Banerjee said. "That means that we know that 80-90% of our interventions can be delivered at the primary health care level and... to make sure that services are coming closer to the people."
Although pre-term babies now have better chances of survival in many parts of the world, there has been no improvement in the rates of such births over the past decade.
Global health experts give many reasons for the problem.
The WHO says maternal health risks, such as adolescent pregnancies and the high blood pressure disorder during pregnancy, pre-eclampsia, are closely linked to early labor.
Banerjee said mental health is also one of the causes of pre-term and stillbirths.
"Anxiety and depression are related," she said. "Many of us have published on this, and it's clear we need to [make improvements] and [provide] quality care. Preventive care is so important even in situations like stillbirth."
Banerjee also said inequities in health care play a role in early child survival, an issue that not only determines mortality rates between countries, but also between rural and urban areas.
Joy Lawn, a researcher and professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said four million babies in Africa are born each year too soon – a figure that's higher than in Europe but lower than in South Asia.
"Babies who are born too soon in Africa die too soon, and this should not be acceptable," she said.
Survival rates are often equated to social status as more pre-term babies born to rich families tend to survive when compared to those born to poor families. In Africa, most pre-term infants die from lack of needed care. Most of the child deliveries in sub–Saharan Africa happen in lower-level health care facilities.
Nahya Salim, a senior lecturer and researcher at the Department of Pediatric and Child Health at Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences in Tanzania, said the survival of newborn babies remains a complex issue despite government investments in health care.
"Our health system is still weak in most sub-Saharan African countries. (In response), the WHO in collaboration with UNICEF has just launched the implementation of tool-kits to (help) countries implement (care) in a smarter way. (This will) strengthen the building blocks of our health system and harmonize (efforts) with our partners by working together and strengthening newborn care at all levels."
The WHO urges the implementation of known and cost-effective solutions to ensure that every woman has access to high-quality sexual, reproductive and maternal care, and that every baby born too soon can survive and thrive.