The doctor fighting to save Donbas' premature babies

STORY: In the last specialist maternity ward still under Ukrainian control in the eastern Donbas region, sandbags line the windows.

But as the war rages on, newborn babies are warmly welcomed into the world.

The center is a wartime lifeline for expectant mothers and their babies.

Dr. Ivan Tsyganok is head of the center in Pokrovsk, only 25 miles from the frontline.

"Pokrovsk Perinatal Center was established in 2015. It was one of the three perinatal centres in the Donetsk region. It served patients in the south west of the region, that's more than half a million people. Now we are the only (perinatal center) left."

The center is estimated to serve 340,000 people, such as first-time mother Viktoriya.

The fearful 16-year-old says she struggles to remain calm as the sound of shooting affects her nerves.

Dr. Tsyganok fears the stress of living under Russian attack has led to a spike in premature babies, which data collection from the center suggests.

The research, which was shared with Reuters, has been observed elsewhere in conflict zones.

Katya Buravtsova’s second child is one such premature baby.

Born at 28 weeks, doctors say Illiusha would have had little chance of survival had he not been born at the center and had access to an incubator and specialist care.

"We want peace so that our children do not have to see what is going on now. We just want peace.”

"The most scary thing is uncertainty. What is going to happen next."

In 2021, about 12% of just over 1,000 babies born at the center were premature - delivered before 37 weeks.

This rate compares with a Ukraine-wide average of about 9%, according to the World Health Organization.

But since the invasion on February 24th, the rate has increased to 16.5%.

Although, the total number of births in Pokrovsk has also dramatically dropped, due to pregnant women having fled.

Doctors at the center began anecdotally collecting data on how war affects pregnancy soon after it opened.

The center opened opened in 2015, a year after conflict in the region first broke out.

By 2017, a study was underway.

Obstetrician-gynaecologist Olesia Kushnarenko found half of the women she studied had fetoplacental dysfunction – when oxygen and nutrients are not sufficiently transferred to the fetus.

This appeared at a rate four-times higher than that found among a control group of 38 women.

Higher rates of complications, including premature birth, among the babies born to mothers with high levels of stress were also found.

Russia denies targeting civilians but many Ukrainian cities, towns and villages have been left in ruins.

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