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October 15, 2008
The National Center for Health Statistics offers some encouraging news this morning: The U.S. infant mortality rate seems to finally be dropping, even though we still rank a dismal 29th in the world, tied with Poland and Slovakia. The main reason for that poor showing is the rise in premature births. From 2000 to 2005, the share of preterm births increased 9 percent, to 12.7 percent. Babies born at 34 to 36 weeks were three times as likely to die as were full-term babies, who are born at 37 to 41 weeks of gestation.
But I was struck earlier this week by a related startling statistic while reading a front-page story in the Washington Post about Sierra Leone's shocking rate of women dying in childbirth (1 in 8). Women in the United States have a 1-in-4,800 lifetime risk of dying in labor, according to a 2007 United Nations report—much higher than the 1-in-48,000 rate in top-ranked Ireland. In fact, the United States ranked a dismal 41st out of an analysis of 171 nations, which included underdeveloped countries like Sierra Leone. Even more troubling is that our mortality rate is the highest that it has been in decades, according to the latest report from the National Center for Health Statistics. What gives?