One-Third of U.S. Infant Deaths Result of Premature Birth

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Infant Deaths and Premature Birth

One-third of U.S. infant deaths are because of premature birth, according to a study published in the September issue of the journal Pediatrics, the Los Angeles Times reports. William Callaghan of CDC's Division of Reproductive Health and colleagues examined 27,970 infant deaths in 2002 for which both death and birth certificates were available. The researchers focused on the 20 leading causes of infant death, including cardiac problems, respiratory distress and birth defects (Maugh, Los Angeles Times, 10/2).

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The study finds that 34% of infant deaths were caused by premature birth and that more than 95% of the deaths occurred in infants born before 32 weeks' gestation (Naik, Wall Street Journal, 10/2). According to an Institute of Medicine report released in July, one in eight infants in the U.S., or more than 500,000 annually, is born at least three weeks early. In 2004, preterm births accounted for 12.5% of all births, a 30% increase since 1981.

The report cites several causes for the rising preterm birthrate - including an increasing number of births to adolescent girls and older women, whether a woman previously had delivered a preterm infant, a greater willingness by some ob-gyns and pregnant women to induce labor in a "medically chosen" preterm birth, and more frequent use of in vitro fertilization (Kaiser Daily Women's Health Policy Report, 7/14).

Prior data pointed toward birth defects as the No. 1 cause of death among infants during the first year after birth. However, the recent CDC study suggests that birth before 37 weeks' gestation is the dominant factor in infant death, according to the Times. "We are approaching the limits of technology to keep the infants alive. If anything is going to be done to make a major movement, it's the prevention of preterm births," Callaghan said, adding, "Every day that you keep a baby in that womb makes a difference" (Los Angeles Times, 10/2).

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