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A new study shows that more than a million babies die each year because they are born too soon, and that the highest rates of preterm births are in Africa followed by North America. VOA looks at the causes and sometimes devastating results of being born prematurely.
Losing a baby is not supposed to happen. Dianne Lovett lost twins. "It's very hard to lose a child," she said between tears.
Parents of some 13 million preterm babies born around the world face the uncertainty of whether their babies will live long enough to go home from the hospital.
Chris Hausen, with the March of Dimes, an organization to that promotes healthy births, says nearly 10 percent of all babies are born prematurely, and preterm births account for nearly one-third of newborn deaths. "In this report, we document for the very first time the global toll of preterm birth which is just severe and remarkable to us,” he told us. “We're talking about 13 million babies born every year preterm. Over a million of those dying every year as a result of being born preterm."
Hausen says the number of preterm births is increasing. More than 85 percent of the world's early births happen in Africa. "Probably the factors that contribute to the high rates in Africa are mired in the poverty in the region and the weak health systems. The fact that women are malnourished before pregnancy and during pregnancy, they (also) have high rates of infectious diseases," Hausen explained.
In the United States, the reasons are quite different: more women over the age of 35 are having babies. They are also more likely to use in-vitro fertilization, a procedure which can result in multiple births and a greater likelihood these babies will be born prematurely.
Experts say every week a baby stays in the womb makes a difference. At 24 weeks gestation, nearly 50 percent of preterm babies can survive. At 25 to 26 weeks, the survival rate goes up to 70 percent.
But there is more at stake than just a successful delivery. Nine-year-old Heather Croy was born at 24 weeks, weighing less than three-quarters of a kilogram. "I lived. And, they thought I'd die – but that wasn't going to happen," she said defiantly.
Heather speaks softly because her vocal cords were damaged by the breathing tube she had for three years. But she does not have complications that other premature babies often experience: learning disabilities and serious lifelong health problems such as cerebral palsy, blindness and hearing loss.
Currently, there is no reliable way to prevent a preterm birth. But the March of Dimes says a lot can be done to reduce the rates of death and disability.
The report's authors say more needs to be done to educate health care workers, policy makers and women themselves about high risk pregnancies and caring for pre-term babies.