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Percentage of babies born prematurely decline in state, nation the past five years

| Monday, Nov. 12, 2012, 11:58 p.m.

New statistics show the percentage of babies born prematurely declined in the state and nation the past five years, a sign that increasing numbers of babies are likely to have better health during their lifetimes, a Pittsburgh maternal-fetal health expert said Monday.

”It's important to point out that this is the first five-year period in the U.S. and in Pennsylvania where we've seen a flattening out of the pre-term birth rate,” said Dr. Hyagriv N. Simhan, chief of maternal-fetal medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and director of obstetrical services at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC.

Pregnancy and baby health nonprofit The March of Dimes released statistics Monday showing the preterm birth rate in Pennsylvania fell to 11 percent this year from 11.8 percent in 2006, putting the state slightly ahead of the nation, where the rate was 11.7 percent, down from 12.8 percent in 2006.

“Pennsylvania's progress means that more babies are being born healthy, health care costs are being reduced and families are being spared the heartache of having a baby born too soon,” said Dr. Jay S. Greenspan, chair of the March of Dimes Program Services Board.

Doctors consider 39 weeks to be full term for pregnancies. The March of Dimes report found the greatest declines in preterm births nationally occurred among babies born at 34 to 36 weeks of pregnancy.

The improvement is critical, Simhan said, because prematurity often carries lifetime medical issues, ranging from severe handicaps among the most premature to asthma and obesity among late-term preemies.

Indeed, the Institute of Medicine estimates that births before 37 weeks of gestation add $26 billion a year to health care costs in the United States.

Simhan attributes part of the improvement to the publication of effective surveillance and prevention guidelines for physicians serving mothers at risk of pre-term births as well as a growing awareness of the importance of the final weeks of pregnancy.

“I'm optimistic because for the first time we've seen some of the fruits of our labors,” Simhan said.

But he warns that research on the causes of prematurity must move forward if improvements are to continue.

“It's an area of research that affects a vulnerable population and it is massively underfunded,” Simhan said.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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