Background: Determining gestational age in resource-poor settings is challenging because of limited availability of ultrasound technology and late first presentation to antenatal clinic. Last menstrual period (LMP), symphysio-pubis fundal height (SFH) and Ballard Score (BS) at delivery are therefore often used. We assessed the accuracy of LMP, SFH, and BS to estimate gestational age at delivery and preterm birth compared to ultrasound (US) using a large dataset derived from a randomized controlled trial in pregnant malaria patients in four African countries.
Methods: Mean and median gestational age for US, LMP, SFH and BS were calculated for the entire study population and stratified by country. Correlation coefficients were calculated using Pearson's rho, and Bland Altman plots were used to calculate mean differences in findings with 95% limit of agreements. Sensitivity, specificity, positive predictive value and negative predictive value were calculated considering US as reference method to identify term and preterm babies.
Results: A total of 1630 women with P. falciparum infection and a gestational age > 24 weeks determined by ultrasound at enrolment were included in the analysis. The mean gestational age at delivery using US was 38.7 weeks (95%CI: 38.6-38.8), by LMP, 38.4 weeks (95%CI: 38.0-38.9), by SFH, 38.3 weeks (95%CI: 38.2-38.5), and by BS 38.0 weeks (95%CI: 37.9-38.1) (p < 0.001). Correlation between US and any of the other three methods was poor to moderate. Sensitivity and specificity to determine prematurity were 0.63 (95%CI 0.50-0.75) and 0.72 (95%CI, 0.66-0.76) for LMP, 0.80 (95%CI 0.74-0.85) and 0.74 (95%CI 0.72-0.76) for SFH and 0.42 (95%CI 0.35-0.49) and 0.77 (95%CI 0.74-0.79) for BS.
Conclusions: In settings with limited access to ultrasound, and in women who had been treated with P. falciparum malaria, SFH may be the most useful antenatal tool to date a pregnancy when women present first in second and third trimester. The Ballard postnatal maturation assessment has a limited role and lacks precision. Improving ultrasound facilities and skills, and early attendance, together with the development of new technologies such as automated image analysis and new postnatal methods to assess gestational age, are essential for the study and management of preterm birth in low-income settings.