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Premature Births: Top Obstetric Problem

Causes of Preterm Birth, Risks to Infant, Misunderstood
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WebMD Health News

Jan. 30, 2003 -- One in eight babies is born prematurely in the U.S. -- an "unacceptably high" number, say experts. Yet most people don't understand the causes of premature birth, or the serious health risks to the infant and most U.S. adults don't consider it a serious public health problem.

A recent March of Dimes-sponsored survey finds that most people blame premature birth on the mother's behavior during pregnancy. It also finds that most people have misconceptions about preventing preterm birth and the long-term effects on the infant's health.

In fact, the numbers of premature births have soared in the past 20 years. It's become the top obstetric problem in the U.S, the March of Dimes says. In 2001 more than 476,000 babies -- or nearly 12% of live births -- were born before 37 completed weeks, which is considered premature.

"The annual rate of babies born prematurely has risen 27% since 1981, and this rate is unacceptably high," says Jennifer L. Howse, MD, president of the March of Dimes, in a news release. "Many of these babies come into the world with serious health problems. Those who survive may suffer life-long consequences, from cerebral palsy and mental retardation to blindness."

The March of Dimes survey of nearly 2,000 women and men found that 65% of women and 49% of men think that children are born prematurely because their mothers do not take care of themselves during pregnancy.

"In fact, the cause of half of all premature births in the U.S. remains a mystery," says Nancy Green, MD, March of Dimes medical director, in a news release.

Almost 75% of the women surveyed thought a mother who delivers could have done something about it, says researcher Holly A. Massett, PhD, in the news release.

"We are concerned at how common this 'blame the mother' perspective is because, in addition to being unfair to many mothers who delivery preterm, it can distract all of us from the truth that more research is desperately needed to determine how to prevent premature births," says Massett.

Despite the high numbers of preterm births, the cause -- in half the cases -- is unknown, she writes. "Recent studies suggest that infections; placental, uterine, and cervical abnormalities; tobacco use; and psychosocial factors such as severe stress, anxiety, and depression may be associated with increased rates of preterm birth," she adds.

Around a third to half of all the women surveyed saw premature birth as a serious problem in the U.S., she reports. Yet when the women were asked about whether they thought premature birth was either a very serious or extremely serious threat to the baby's health, most (68%) responded that they thought it was. Only 59% of men saw premature birth as a threat to the baby's health.

"Overall, men show a lower level of understanding about prematurity and perceive it to be a lesser risk," writes Massett.

It all points to the need for more public education about premature births -- which would lend support to research on premature birth.

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