Credit: Courtesy of The University of Alabama at Birmingham FB Page

Record-breaker: ‘baby boy born at 21 weeks becomes the most premature baby ever to survive

A baby boy from the US state of Alabama has been recognised by the Guinness World Records as “the world’s most premature baby” ever to survive. Curtis Means, who was born weighing less than a football and given a one per cent chance of survival, beat long odds. On 4 July 2020, a tiny Curtis made his entrance into the world over four months premature at just 21 weeks and 1 day, weighing less than one pound. His mother, Michelle Butler, gave birth to twins, but sadly, his sister C’Asya did not survive, and died a day later.

Curtis hung on though, clinging onto life in intensive care having been given a miniscule chance of survival. Babies rarely pull through such an ordeal, but Curtis grew stronger and stronger as the days went on. The brave little boy responded remarkably well to treatment. Now, he is happy and healthy at 16 months, and in the opinion of some, looks just like a future linebacker.

“The medical staff told me that they don’t normally keep babies at that age,” the boy’s mother, Michelle told Guinness in an interview. “It was very stressful.”

Dr Brian Sims, the neonatologist on duty who oversaw Michelle’s delivery, said: ‘I’ve been doing this 20 years but I’ve never seen a baby this young be as strong as he was […] there was something very special about Curtis.’ Dr Sims added, “The numbers say that babies at this age will not survive.”

Curtis remained on a ventilator for three months and therapists had to help him learn how to breathe and eat. He was also given medication for his heart and lungs to keep him alive. But the little boy made a miraculous comeback during his first three months of life, much to the surprise of doctors and staff at the University of Alabama hospital, and was finally discharged from the Neonatal Unit in April this year after a total of 275 days spent there.

Mrs Butler, who has three older children, recalls the magic of bringing Curtis home: “Being able to finally take Curtis home and surprise my older children with their younger brother is a moment I will always remember.”


Credit: Courtesy of The University of Alabama at Birmingham FB Page

Curtis still needs supplemental oxygen and a feeding tube, although the adorable, beaming baby boy is happy and healthy and doctors say he is doing well.

The previous record holder was Winsconsin baby Richard Hutchinson, born 24 hours later than Curtis in June 2020. More and more premature babies are surviving, with the survival rate for extremely premature babies doubling over the past decade, prompting new guidance, published in 2019, from the British Association of Perinatal Medicine (BAPM) which allows UK doctors to attempt to save babies, like Curtis and Richard, born as early as 22 weeks into a pregnancy.

The previous clinical guidance from 2008, advised against providing life-saving treatment to babies born as early as 22 weeks into a pregnancy on the basis that it would not be in the child’s best interests.

The incredible story of baby Curtis, and the stories of many other children going on to beat the odds, provide new evidence that babies born at this age can have a good chance of survival. British data shows that in 2008, only two out of ten babies born at 23 weeks went on to survive. Today it has risen to four out of ten, according to analysis from BAPM. It is estimated that one in 16 women will have a preterm birth.

In Ireland, the survival rate for extremely premature babies has risen and is expected to continue to do so, thanks to new medical practises and research, the Master of the Rotunda Hospital said in 2017. Around 4,500 premature babies are born every year in Ireland according to the Irish Neonatal Health Alliance. Of these babies, those born at less than 22 weeks are highly unlikely to survive. Chances of survival rise to 19 per cent at 23 weeks, 40 per cent at 24 weeks, 66 per cent at 25 weeks and 77 per cent at 26 weeks. A premature birth is any birth when a baby is born more than three weeks before his or her due date.

In 2020, the Rotunda Hospital announced that 98 per cent of babies born premature at 28 weeks or later in the facility in 2019 survived, according to its annual report that year. The hugely hopeful figures were announced to coincide with World Premature Day. Commenting on the statistics, Professor Fergal Malone said that he was “delighted” that the survival rate had remained “extremely high”.

“Survival rates for premature infants have increased in recent years due to continued advances in obstetric care and the quality of neonatal management, resulting in more families than ever having healthy surviving premature babies,” Prof Malone said.

Meanwhile, the UK abortion limit remains at 24 weeks, past the point of viability. In Ireland, abortion is permitted by to 12 weeks on wide-ranging grounds, whilst babies can be aborted past 24 weeks — in fact, without time limit — in both Ireland and the UK if a disability is detected. The moving and extraordinary stories of survival of babies like little Curtis means are likely to raise hard questions from some about the reality of abortion legislation in Ireland and further afield.

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