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Worldwide, nearly 1 in 10 babies is premature

A March of Dimes report finds that the preemie birth rate in North America is almost as high as in Africa. A meeting in India this week focuses on the problem.

October 05, 2009|Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Nearly 1 in 10 of the world's babies is born prematurely, and about 1 million infants die each year as a result of premature birth, according to a report released Sunday by the March of Dimes.

The problem is concentrated in poor countries, with the vast majority of the nearly 13 million preemies born each year in Africa and Asia, the report says.

Although Africa has the highest rate of premature births, North America isn't far behind.

Why? "That's the 13-million-baby question," said March of Dimes epidemiologist Christopher Howson, who headed the project being debated this week at a child health meeting in India.

Different factors fuel prematurity in rich countries and poor ones. Wealthy nations such as the United States have sophisticated neonatal intensive care units for the youngest preemies.

That produces headlines about miracle babies and leads to a false sense that modern medicine conquers prematurity -- without acknowledging the lifelong problems, including cerebral palsy, blindness and learning disabilities, that often plague survivors.

The March of Dimes has teamed up with the World Health Organization to learn more about the problem.

"These are conservative estimates," Howson said. "As shocking as this toll is, that toll will only rise" as next year the WHO finishes a more in-depth country-by-country count.

Babies born before completion of the 37th week of pregnancy are premature.

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