SUNDAY, Oct. 4 (HealthDay News) -- An estimated 13 million infants worldwide are born premature each year and more than one million of them die within the first month of life, according to a report released Sunday.
Premature births account for 9.6 percent of total births and for 28 percent of newborn deaths, the data in a White Paper from the March of Dimes and other organizations found.
The highest rates of premature birth are in Africa, followed by North America (Canada and the United States combined).
"Premature births are an enormous global problem that is exacting a huge toll emotionally, physically and financially on families, medical systems and economies," Dr. Jennifer L. Howse, March of Dimes president, said in a news release.
In the United States alone, the annual cost of caring for preterm babies and their associated health problems is more than $26 billion a year.
"If world leaders are serious about reaching the United Nation's Millennium Development Goals to reduce child mortality and improve maternal health, then strategies and funding for reducing death and disability related to preterm birth must receive priority," Howse said.
The March of Dimes' Global and Regional Toll of Preterm Birth report used data from the recently published Bulletin of the World Health Organization, which probably underestimates the extent of preterm birth worldwide, according to Howse.
More than 85 percent of the world's preterm births occur in Africa, where about 11.9 percent (four million babies a year) are born preterm. Rates in other regions are: 10.6 percent in North America; 9.1 percent in Asia; 8.1 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean; 6.4 percent in Oceania (Australia and New Zealand); and 6.2 percent in Europe.
In more affluent regions, 1,014,000 infants each year are born preterm -- 7.5 percent of total births. In middle-resource regions, 7,685,000 infants are born preterm -- 8.8 percent of total births. In low-resource regions, 4,171,000 infants are born preterm -- 12.5 percent of total births, according to the report.
Rates of preterm birth in the United States have increased 36 percent in the past 25 years due to a number of key factors. More women over age 35 are getting pregnant and there's increased use of assisted reproductive technologies, resulting in more multiple births, the report stated.
Infants who survive preterm birth are at risk for a number of serious lifelong health problems such as cerebral palsy, blindness, hearing loss, and learning disabilities.
Currently, there is no reliable way to prevent or delay preterm birth.
"While much can be done right now to reduce death and disability from preterm birth even in low-resource settings, we need to know more about the underlying causes of premature birth in order to develop effective prevention strategies," Christopher P. Howson, vice president for global programs at the March of Dimes, said in the news release.
The authors of the new report said more needs to be done to educate health professionals, policy makers, women of childbearing age, and others about the global toll of preterm birth, as well as how to care for women with high-risk pregnancies and their babies.
The report is scheduled to be presented this month at the International Conference on Birth Defects and Disabilities in the Developing World, held in New Delhi, India.
The U.S. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development has more about preterm labor and birth.
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