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Premature births down but C-sections continue rise

March 18, 2009 | 12:29 pm

PremieStatistics on childbirth released today show progress on some fronts and discouraging news on others. The most promising data was in rates of premature birth and low birth-weight babies. Both showed the first decline in rates since the early 1980s. The statistics were among a report released today by the National Center for Health Statistics.

The preterm birth rate, defined as infants delivered at less than 37 weeks of pregnancy, fell 1% in 2007. The rate is now 12.7% of all births. According to the March of Dimes, the improvement is largely due to a reduction in deliveries taking place a week or two early. But March of Dimes President Jennifer Howse said in a news release, "We're encouraged by this drop in the preterm birth rate, and hope that the emphasis we've put on the problem of late preterm birth is beginning to make a difference."

The rates of preterm births were uneven across the country. Alaska, Idaho and New Hampshire experienced significant declines -- 7%, 9% and 10%, respectively -- while other states showed increases. The rate in California increased from 10.7% in 2006 to 10.9% in 2007. Data on state performance can be found on the March of Dimes website.

Rates of low birth-weight babies also declined slightly, from 8.3% in 2006 to 8.2% in 2007. However, any drop is important since the rates of both preterm and low birth-weight births had been steadily climbing for more than 20 years.

On a less optimistic note, births to teenage women increased for the second straight year, now accounting for 42.5 of every 1,000 U.S. births. And the rate of C-section delivery, long criticized as needlessly high, continues to soar. C-section deliveries now make up 31.8% of all births. It's the 11th straight year the C-section rate has increased.

The data also showed that births to unmarried women continue to rise to historic levels, now accounting for almost 40% of all births. The U.S. fertility rate is also up 1%, to 69.5 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44.

The report, "Birth: Preliminary Data for 2007," can be accessed on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Loyola University Medical Center via Getty Images