WEDNESDAY, May 2, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- More than 15 million -- or 12 percent -- of U.S. babies are born prematurely each year, according to a report released Wednesday by the March of Dimes and several other organizations.
This gives the United States a ranking of 131st in the world for its rate of preterm births, on a par with Somalia, Thailand and Turkey and slightly lower than the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the report said.
"It was surprising to see the U.S. ranked 131st in terms of its rate of preterm birth," said report co-author Christopher Howson. "This really should be seen as a call to action in the United States."
According to the report, more than 1 million of these babies die as a result of complications from being born too early, making prematurity the leading cause of newborn death in the United States. Many others go on to have lifelong disabilities.
Babies who are born before 37 weeks' gestation are considered premature.
"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," said Dr. Abeer Azzuqa, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Magee-Womens Hospital and Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. "Premature babies will need more support than other babies. They are at risk of being readmitted to the hospital."
The country of Belarus, one of the former Soviet republics, had the fewest preterm births, only 4.1 per 100 births, while Malawi had the highest rate with 18.1 premature babies per 100 births. In the United States, the rate was 12 per 100 births.
Worldwide, the rate of babies born prematurely seems to be on the rise, the report stated.
A number of factors are driving the high rate of preterm births, said Howson, who is vice president for global programs at the March of Dimes.
"A number one factor, which is common to a lot of high-income countries, is that the U.S. has more older women having babies," he said.
The use of fertility drugs resulting in multiple births as well as higher rates of Caesareans are also pushing the rate of preterm births up, he said.
As well, the United States has certain subpopulations that are a much higher risk of preterm birth, particularly black women. In 2008, preterm births represented 17.5 percent of all births in the black community, vs. about only 11 percent among whites.
But solutions to the problem are readily apparent, the report stated.
"We need to provide access to health care for all women of childbearing aging before pregnancy, between pregnancies and certainly [during] pregnancy," Howson said. "In 2009, about 71 percent of women made contact with the health care system in the first trimester. That's not a very high rate."
Minority populations such as Hispanics and blacks are even less likely to access the health care system.
Prenatal care is key to a healthy pregnancy, Azzuqa said, as is getting women to abstain from drinking alcohol during pregnancy and to quit smoking.
"There's a lot to be done," she said, adding that she was not surprised by the low U.S. ranking.
Howson, of the March of Dimes, added, "The U.S. has one of the highest survival rates [for preterm babies], but we're not doing such a great job to prevent preterm births from occurring in the first place."
Learn more about prematurity at the March of Dimes.