Preterm Births Soar Worldwide
May 3, 2012

Preterm Births Soar Worldwide

Connie K. Ho for

A new study, “Born Too Soon: The Global Action Report on Preterm Birth,” reports that almost half a million babies (12.0 out of 100 births) are born prematurely in the U.S. every year. This is a higher rate than 130 countries in the world, including many impoverished countries. In all the world, 15 million babies are born preterm, more than 1 million die as a result of being born early, and three-quarters of the babies could be saved if cost-effective interventions were made.

The report is published by the March of Dimes Foundation; The Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health; Save the Children; and The World Health Organization as part of the United Nation´s “Every Woman Every Child Initiative.” It displays information from over 50 UN agencies, universities, and organizations. The report ranked the U.S. at 131 in the world of having preterm births, which is at the same level of countries like Somalia, Thailand, and Turkey. Reuters reports that the study has been developed over the past three years and was written by experts from 11 nations.

"Being born too soon is an unrecognized killer," said Dr. Joy Lawn, co-editor of the report and director of global evidence and policy for Save the Children, in an interview with The Guardian. "Pre-term births account for almost half of all newborn deaths worldwide and are now the second leading cause of death in children under-five, after pneumonia."

According to the AFP, the report stated that the highest region that has preterm births is southern Asia and then the next highest region is sub-Saharan Africa. In total, south Asia and Africa account for 60 percent of early births. In terms of specific countries, Malawi had the highest rate of preterm births (18.1 out of 100 births) while Belarus, a previous Soviet republic, had the least (4.1 per 100 births). The cause of preterm births is not known, but has been attributed to factors such as being underweight or overweight, having high blood pressure or disease, or showing substance abuse.

"There is a dramatic survival gap for premature babies depending on where they are born," noted the report.

The findings regarding the U.S. and high rate of preterm births has prompted medical experts to examine processes and procedures more carefully of U.S. hospitals and health clinics.

"This report offers conclusive evidence that the United States rate of preterm birth has been far too high for far too long," commented Dr. Jennifer L. Howse, president of the March of Dimes, in a prepared statement. "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 to full-term."

Babies are considered preterm if they are born 37 weeks before completed gestation and preterm birth is the leading cause of death among newborns. According to the Reuters article, babies are born early for different reasons. In poorer countries, women go into labor too soon due to infections like malaria and HIV, inadequate prenatal care, obesity or substance abuse. On the other hand, the cause of early births in wealthier nations can be due to fertility drugs, inductions of labor, and Caesarian surgeries done earlier for convenience rather than medical necessity.

Babies who are born early tend to have medical conditions such as respiratory problems, cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities, among other problems.

"Preterm babies can have developmental delays, cerebral palsy and, with extreme prematurity [babies born before 28 weeks gestation], we have what we call chronic lung disease," explained Dr. Abeer Azzuqa, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Magee-Womens Hospital and Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, in a U.S. News article. "Premature babies will need more support than other babies. They are at risk of being readmitted to the hospital."

According to Dr. Howse, a number of additional things can be done to prevent preterm birth. These effective health interventions include better management of fertility treatments, proving hospital quality improvement initiatives to help decrease early inductions and Cesarean deliveries before completion of 39 weeks of pregnancy, and promoting behavioral changes like not smoking to reduce the chance of an early birth.

"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," remarked Dr. David L. Lakey, president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials and Commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, in the statement. "Interventions that promote full term, 39-week pregnancies and improve the health of babies can significantly reduce health care costs."

The U.S. Department of Health also announced an imitative called “Smart Start” that started this past February. The program includes funding for things such as hospital quality implement programs, education programs, and enhanced prenatal care. For those interested in learning more about premature births, log onto March of Dimes online.