July 12, 2009

Low Birth Weight, Preterm Numbers On the Decline

According to a government report released Saturday, the percentages of infants born preterm and the percentage born with low birth weight has slightly declined in 2007, after several decades of steady increases.

Dr. Duane Alexander, Director of Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, said that in 2007, 18% of all U.S. children between the ages of 0 to 17 lived in poverty, up from 17% the year before.

"Infants born preterm and of low birth weight are at increased risk for infant death and they also have a greater chance of lifelong disabilities such as blindness, deafness and cerebral palsy, making this an extremely important indicator of child well-being," Alexander noted.

The report said that in 2007, the percentage of infants born preterm was 12.7%, which was down from 12.8% in 2006.  The percentage of infants born with a low birth weight was 8.2% in 2007, which is down from 8.3% in 2006.

"Both of these indicators of child well-being have been increasing for years," Alexander noted, "so any easing of these trends is welcome news. Unfortunately, at this point, we don't know if the decreases are the beginning of a trend or just a minor fluctuation," he acknowledged.

Underage drinking statistics showed some encouraging news.  Heavy alcohol drinking by 8th grade students was at 8% in 2008, down from 13% in 1996.  For 10th grade students, the number fell to 16% in 2008 from 24% in 2000.  In 12th grade students the statistics still showed a decline from 32% in 1998 to 25% in 2008.

However, the data on the economic "health" of the nation's children are "not so encouraging," said Alexander.  In relation to the number of children living in poverty in 2007, the percentage of children that had at least one parent working full-time year round was 77% in 2007, compared to 78% in 2006.

"These indicators show children losing ground," Alexander said, and "they predate the current economic downturn," he noted.

The report has better news, noting indications that in 2007, 89% of children had health insurance coverage at some point during the year, which was up from 88% in 2006.

Dr. Edward Sondik, Director for the National Center for Health Statistics, said that the number of children without health insurance at any time during 2007 was 8.1 million, or 11% of all U.S. children.

"And we have no data for 2008 or 2009, when the economic downturn really hit hard and when you'd expect to see the largest impact," Sondik emphasized.

Alexander said that the 216-page government report, "strikes a balance between yearly changes in children's status and long-term trends, which highlight progress or warn of needed improvement."


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