The rate of U.S. babies born prematurely dropped two years in a row after rising steadily for three decades, according to a March of Dimes analysis of the latest figures available.
Although the drop was slight — from 12.8% in 2006 to 12.3% in 2008 — health experts Wednesday called it significant.
“We’ve still got a lot of work to do, but it’s starting to get better,” said Jennifer Howse, president of the March of Dimes. The 2008 rate is still far above the 2010 national goal of 7.6%, she said.
Her national, non-profit group works to prevent birth defects and premature births.
Rates of babies born prematurely — or before 37 weeks’ gestation — fell in 40 states and the District of Columbia, according to the latest March of Dimes report. Forty weeks is full gestation for a newborn.
Prematurity remains the leading cause of death of newborns, and survivors face a higher risk of intellectual disabilities, vision and hearing loss and other health problems, U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin said Wednesday.
“It’s a public health problem,” she said.
The premature birth rate in 1981 was 9.4%.
Most of the 2006-08 decline in the preterm birth rate stemmed from a drop in late preterm births, due in large part from efforts by hospitals and doctors to reduce the number of labor inductions and cesarean sections before 39 weeks, Howse said.
A small decline in smoking among pregnant women also probably contributed to the drop in late preterm births, Benjamin said.
Besides quitting smoking and not scheduling labor induction or C-sections too early, Benjamin said women can take other steps to reduce their risk of preterm delivery. They include having a preconception checkup and regular prenatal care and knowing the signs of premature labor.
Maternal risk factors for preterm birth include a lack of health insurance, high blood pressure, diabetes, previous preterm birth, carrying twins or higher multiples and uterine and cervical abnormalities.
The U.S. preterm birth rate is among the highest in industrialized countries. According to a paper published in January in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 9.6% of 2005 births worldwide were preterm.
About 85% of those births occurred in Africa and Asia. However, North America’s preterm birth rate of 10.6% in 2005 wasn’t too far behind Africa’s 11.9%. By comparison, Europe’s rate was 6.2%.
Each year, Howse said, more than half a million U.S. babies are born too early, costing the country $26 billion in medical care, parents’ lost wages and other related expenses.
About 70% of premature babies are born from 34 to 36 weeks’ gestation, which is considered late preterm, she said. “Even though they look big and sort of look OK, these babies can end up in the neonatal intensive care unit, too,” Howse said. “Those last days really count.”
J. Kyle Mathews, MD
Plano OB Gyn Associates