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Preterm Birth: A Public Health Crisis?

Comstock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Roughly 12 percent of American babies are born before 37 weeks gestation, a new study found, landing the U.S. in sixth place behind India, Nigeria and Pakistan when it comes to preterm births.

"Urgent attention is needed to better understand and reduce these rates of preterm birth," the study authors wrote in their report, published Thursday in The Lancet.

More than half of babies born at 25 weeks or sooner survive in the U.S., thanks to cutting edge care.  But it costs the country upward of $26.2 billion a year, or $51,600 per preterm infant, according to an editorial accompanying the study.

"The economic burden from preterm birth is, of course, of less importance than human suffering, but is far from insignificant," wrote Dr. Nils-Halvdan Morken of the University of Bergen and Haukeland University Hospital.  "Preterm birth not only results in economic burdens due to initial neonatal treatment, but also in substantial costs to health services after discharge from the neonatal unit, culminating in an immense burden on health, education, and social services, and on affected families."

Babies born at 27 weeks or sooner are 10 times more likely to have intellectual disabilities and 80 times more likely to have cerebral palsy, according to Morken.

"Clearly, the implications go far beyond the immediate obstetric and neonatal outcomes and profoundly affect the everyday lives of affected infants, adolescents, men, and women," he wrote.

But some preterm births are spontaneous and impossible to avoid.  Others are provider initiated, meaning a doctor decides it's best for both mom and baby.

"In some cases, the baby needs to come out.  It would be worse for them to stay in," Dr. Marjorie Greenfield, division chief of general obstetrics and gynecology at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland.  "The medical team needs to weigh the risks and the benefits."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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