New information may someday help prevent preterm births, the world's number one killer of young children.

More babies and young children die because they were born preterm than from any other cause, according to Dr. Edward McCabe from the March of Dimes.

"We’ve gotten some infectious diseases, diarrheal illnesses, malnutrition - those have been going down, so we’re making good gains there. But preterm birth has not been going down in many countries. It’s been increasing," said McCabe.

Globally, 15 million children are born prematurely each year. One million of them die, but others suffer lifelong disabilities ... blindness, cerebral palsy, reduced intellectual ability and more.

Sixty percent of preterm births occur in Africa and South Asia. The rate of preterm births in the U.S. has fallen to 11.5 percent, but that's still the highest rate of preterm births in any industrialized country.

The March of Dimes has funded studies and set up centers to find ways to cut this rate. McCabe pointed out that scientists at Stanford University found a difference in the bacteria in women's vaginas that may be critical in the understanding of prematurity.

"At Stanford they found that women who delivered preterm had a different community of microorganisms than women who delivered at term," he said.

Another study shows women have healthier babies if they space their pregnancies by at least a year and a half. Former Surgeon General Regina Benjamin says this is critical.

"A woman’s body requires about 18 months to recover between pregnancies," said Benjamin.

Less than 18 months between births increases the risk of prematurity as does smoking. Getting good prenatal care, nutrition and exercise cuts the risk. Even so, the causes of half of preterm births remain a mystery. Benjamin told a conference on prematurity that's why good research is so desperately needed.

"It would be truly one giant leap for mankind if we could prevent millions of premature births and save hundreds of thousands of babies’ lives," she said.

The goal is healthier babies who require less medical care and who can grow up to become productive citizens.