May 2 2012
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U.S. Lags Behind 130 Other Nations in Preterm Birth Rate

Preterm babies are born at a higher rate in the US than in 130 other countries, including many poorer nations, according to a report released today, Born Too Soon: The Global Action Report on Preterm Birth, published by the March of Dimes and almost fifty other groups, including the World Health Organization.

Preterm birth (birth before 37 weeks completed gestation) is the leading cause of newborn death in the US—nearly half a million US babies are born too early each year. Babies who survive an early birth often have breathing problems, cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities, and other lifelong problems. Even babies born just a few weeks early have higher rates of hospitalization and illness than full-term infants, and the costs exceed $26 billion each year. “While our country excels in helping preemies survive, we have failed to do enough to prevent preterm births and help more mothers carry their babies full-term," says Jennifer L. Howse, president of the March of Dimes.

The report also highlights health disparities for newborns in the US. The rate of preterm births for African American mothers is 18 percent; the rate for white mothers is 11 percent.

Worldwide, the new report finds that 15 million babies are born preterm each year, and more than one million die due to preterm complications. Of these babies, the report notes, three-quarters could be saved if current cost-effective interventions were made more widely available. Those interventions, according to Dr. Howse, include:

  • Giving all women of childbearing age in the U.S. access to health care, including adolescents, and including care before, between, and during pregnancy
  • Behavioral changes to reduce the risk of an early birth, such as not smoking during pregnancy
  • Progesterone treatments for women who have had a previous preterm birth
  • Better management of fertility treatments that result in multiple births
  • Hospital quality improvement initiatives to reduce early inductions and Cesarean deliveries before a full 39 weeks of pregnancy unless medically necessary

“This report underscores the need for action to reduce premature birth in the U.S., and state and territorial health officials have a critical role in championing and implementing proven solutions,” says David L. Lakey, M.D., president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials and Commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services. “Interventions that promote full term, 39-week pregnancies and improve the health of babies can significantly reduce health care costs.” Reducing preterm births is Dr. Lakey’s Presidential Challenge during his term as ASTHO president.

In February, the Department of Health and Human Services announced “Strong Start," an initiative that includes funding for enhanced prenatal care and hospital quality improvement programs. And the March of Dimes has launched its “Healthy Babies Are Worth the Wait” campaign to let women know that if their pregnancy is healthy, it’s best to wait for labor to begin on its own rather than scheduling a delivery. Elizabeth Mason, MD, director of the Department of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health for the WHO says model practices in other countries that have reduced preterm births include creating medical homes for expectant mothers, reducing hospital infection rates and both prenatal care and care throughout a pregnancy to monitor for concerns.

Christopher Howson, PHD, Vice President for Global Programs at the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation, says the current worldwide rate of preterm births could be halved by 2025 if the recommended interventions are carried out. “That is eminently, eminently feasible,” says Howson.

Bonus Reading: For a state-by-state breakdown of preterm birth rates within the U.S., see the March of Dimes 2011 Premature Birth Report Card online at marchofdimes.com/prematurity.

Read a NewPublicHealth interview with David Lakey

Tags: Low-birthweight infants, Disparities, Pediatric care, Health disparities, Maternal and Infant Health