U.S. Sees Fewer Premature Births for Second Straight Year

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Premature birth rates are on their way down. Credit: Damon Dahlen, AOL

The risk of having a premature baby -- with the health problems that portends -- might be decreasing.

Researchers at the National Center for Health Statistics report this week that the number of premature births in the United States dropped for the second straight year.

Premature babies risk ill health and are more likely to die in infancy.

"Following a long period of fairly steady increase, the U.S. pre-term birth rate declined for the second straight year in 2008 to 12.3 percent -- from 12.8 percent in 2006," the researchers write in their report.

"This marks the first two-year decline in the pre-term birth rate in nearly three decades," they add.

One of the researchers, Joyce Martin, tells the Reuters news service that the number of premature births is still unreasonably high for a powerful and affluent nation such as the United States. Doctors and scientists still have a lot of work to do to understand why there are so many sick and dying preemies in a land of plenty, she adds.

Officials at the March of Dimes, a nonprofit organization that battles birth defects, tell Reuters there are still 500,000 babies born prematurely each year in the United States.

"Pre-term birth, birth before 37 weeks gestation, is a serious health problem that costs the U.S. more than $26 billion annually," the group released in a statement. "It is a leading cause of infant death, and babies who survive an early birth often face the risk of lifetime health challenges, including breathing problems, cerebral palsy, mental retardation and others."

Premature births are caused by -- among other reasons -- multiple births where a woman has twins, triplets and quadruplets, Reuters reports. In fact, the higher the number of multiples, the greater the health risk.

Other factors include poor prenatal care and poor nutrition.

"In every state, our volunteers are working with policy makers to improve the quality of perinatal care and determine best practices for reducing pre-term birth," Dr. Jennifer Howse, president of the March of Dimes, tells Reuters. "We are thrilled with this sign of sustained progress."

The National Center for Health Statistics reported last year that the United States ranks 30th in infant mortality compared with other countries. One in eight births in the United States was reportedly premature -- compared with one in 18 births in Ireland and Finland.

Reuters reports that public health experts look at infant mortality in calculating the quality of a country's health care system. Because of that, the United States often finds itself behind other industrialized countries.

Related: Mama Mia: U.S. Ranks 28th in Best Place to be a Mother
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