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Health & Baby

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Rate of Premature Birth Hits New High in U.S.

CDC Says Preterm Births Now Make Up About 12% of All Births
WebMD Health News

Sept. 9, 2005 - The U.S. premature-birth rate has hit a record high, the latest CDC figures show.

The new figures cover the year 2003. They show that premature babies now make up 12.3% of all births -- a 30% increase since detailed record keeping began in 1981.

Most of the increase comes from white babies. Their preterm rate hit 11.5%. But that record high is dwarfed by the preterm rate for black babies: 17.6%, a rate that's barely changed since 1981.

Of even more concern is the "very preterm" rate for blacks. Nearly 4% of black babies are born at less than 32 weeks of pregnancy -- almost two and a half times the rate for white babies.

The new data are "troubling," says Joyce A. Martin, MPH, lead statistician for the CDC's division of vital statistics. Martin is the lead author of the CDC's newly released Births: Final Data for 2003.

"It is of concern nationally that this important indicator of child health continues to deteriorate," Martin tells WebMD.

Going in the Wrong Direction

March of Dimes president Jennifer L. Howse, PhD, says premature birth often has devastating consequences for babies and their families.

"It will break your heart: 25% of those babies have serious lifelong health consequences," Howse tells WebMD. "Learning disabilities, mental retardation, cerebral palsy, blindness or vision impairment -- these are infants who have been damaged and will have a lifetime of disability."

Howse notes that the U.S. Public Health Service has set a goal of reducing the premature birth rate to 7.6% by 2010. But the figures show we're steadily going in the wrong direction.

What's going on? Nobody is sure.

"We cannot say from our data what is driving the increase," Martin says. "Some studies suggest that changes in the management of labor and delivery may be driving some of the change. That is the rate of [medically] induced preterm births and the rate of cesarean delivery for preterm births."

Howse says C-sections and induced labor aren't the whole story. Another factor is the increase in multiple births.

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