Premature Births Soar: Preterm Births the Number One Obstetric Problem

March of Dimes Launches Campaign to Raise Public Awareness, Reduce Rates of Preterm Birth and Increase Research to Find the Cause

Citing the dramatic rise in the number of babies born prematurely in this country, the March of Dimes today launched a $75 million, five-year national campaign. The campaign's goals will be to increase awareness of the growing problem and decrease the rate of premature birth. In 2001, more than 476,000 babies, or nearly 12 percent of live births, were born too soon -- before 37 completed weeks -- in the U.S.

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

Prematurity has also been identified as the leading cause of neonatal death (within the first month of life) in the U.S.

Dr. Howse notes that most Americans today are unaware of the magnitude of this health problem. In a recent March of Dimes national survey of 1,967 adults, only 35 percent of respondents identified prematurity as "very serious" or "extremely serious." In the same survey, more than 50 percent believed the rate of preterm birth is declining or about the same.

The results of this survey are published in the February issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The results of a similar survey of 605 pregnant women appears in this month's issue of Contemporary OB/GYN. "Prematurity is a common and serious problem," says campaign honorary chair Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. "Women and their doctors need to address the known risks. Although African-American women are more likely to experience a premature birth, these births cut across all socioeconomic and cultural barriers. These babies come from every community."

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