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Three-fourths of premature baby deaths worldwide could be averted

May 4, 2012 |  4:30 am

Prematurebabyhands

Three out of every four babies who die after being born too early could be saved if more countries used inexpensive, proven techniques such as holding the baby skin-to-skin against the mother, according to a new report from the World Health Organization and other groups.

“This is a solvable problem,” said the March of Dimes’ Christopher Howson, co-editor of the report. Countries such as Botswana and Ecuador have halved their premature neonatal deaths, he said.

Over the last two decades, premature babies have become more common in all but three countries around the globe, a dangerous and sometimes deadly trend. Almost half of all babies who pass away worldwide are born premature. Those who survive are at higher risk for lifelong physical and neurological disabilities.

The problem hits poor countries such as Malawi and Zimbabwe hardest, linked to infections and malaria. More babies are born early there and fewer survive: In low-income countries, more than 90% of extremely premature babies die, compared to less than 10% in high-income countries, Howson said.

Though the numbers are daunting, some of the solutions are surprisingly simple. “Kangaroo care" –- holding the baby skin-to-skin against the mother to keep it warm –- is one basic step that could save 450,000 of the 1.08 million babies who die annually of premature birth complications, the report said.

Steroids that help immature babies develop their lungs, which cost only a dollar per injection, could save another 400,000. Antiseptic cream and antibiotics could also save lives.

While premature births are more common and more deadly in poorer countries, they have also been on the upswing in wealthy nations such as Austria and the United States, where the trend is tied to older mothers and more fertility drugs, the report said. As of two years ago, the U.S. had a higher rate of premature births than Benin, Cambodia or Tajikistan, with higher rates for teen and middle-aged moms.

The report, released this week, was authored by the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health and Save the Children, in addition to the World Health Organization and the March of Dimes Foundation.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: This July 25, 2006 handout photo provided by the March of Dimes Foundation shows a baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the Albany Medical Center in Albany, N.Y. Credit: Jennifer Coate / Associated Press / The March of Dimes Foundation

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