More Than 1 In 10 Babies Worldwide Born Prematurely; U.S. Rates Similar To Developing Countries
The first ever country-by-country global comparison of premature births, released by the World Health Organization, found that 15 million babies a year are born preterm, or more than one in 10 live births.
About 1 million of those babies die shortly after birth, while countless others suffer a significant, life-long physical, neurological or educational disability, according to Born Too Soon: The Global Action Report on Preterm Birth, released jointly by the W.H.O., Save the Children, the March of Dimes and the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, while American hospitals excel at saving premature infants, the United States is similar to developing countries in the percentage of mothers who give birth before their children are due, ranking worse than any Western European country and considerably below Japan or the Scandinavian countries.
Although more than 60% of preterm births are in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia, about 12% of all births in the USA are preterm, a percentage far higher than in Europe or other developed countries.
"In the United States, our preemies have among the highest survival rates in the world," says co-editor of the report and head of Global Programs for the March of Dimes, Christopher Howson. "Where we fall flat is on the prevention side. We need to do a lot more to prevent preterm births, such as improving health care access for all, bringing down rates of smoking and issues of unnecessary C-sections and inductions."
According to Howson, some of the factors driving up the rate in the USA include obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and smoking; the number of older women having babies; increased use of fertility drugs, which increase the risk of multiple births; and increased rates of medically unnecessary Cesarean deliveries and inductions "done at the convenience of the doctor or mother."
The United States shares the dubious 12 percent range with Kenya, Turkey, Thailand, East Timor and Honduras, meaning one in nine births is early. However, in the United States, an infant born before 28 weeks has a 90 percent chance of surviving, albeit often with disabilities, while in most of Africa such a child has a 90 percent chance of dying.
According to the report, an estimated 75% of the world's 1 million preterm deaths could be avoided if a few "proven and inexpensive treatments and preventions" were widely available in low-income countries, including teaching "kangaroo care," in which tiny babies are held skin-to-skin on their mother's bare chests for warmth when there are no incubators.
Steroid injections for mothers in premature labor, which cost $1 an injection, and help develop immature fetal lungs and prevent respiratory problems, could save almost 400,000 lives a year. Wiping first-aid cream on the stump of the umbilical cord and having antibiotics on hand to fight pneumonia would save countless more.
Researchers say the report, which is three years in the making and the first to compare premature birthrates in 184 countries, "dispels the notion that this is a rare problem," but perhaps more importantly, "leaves no excuse for preterm births to remain a neglected problem."
[image via AP]