About 15 million premature babies are born every year—more than 1 in 10 of the world's births and a bigger problem than previously believed, according to the first country-by-country estimates of this obstetric epidemic. The startling toll: 1.1 million of these fragile newborns die as a result, and even those who survive can suffer lifelong disabilities. Most of the world's preemies are born in Africa and Asia, says the report released today.
It's a problem for the US, too, where half a million babies are born too soon. That's about 1 in 8 US births, a higher rate than in Europe, Canada, Australia, or Japan—and even worse than rates in a number of less developed countries, too. Three-quarters of deaths could be prevented by spreading inexpensive treatments to the neediest countries, the report concludes. For example, providing $1 steroid shots during preterm labor hastens development of immature fetal lungs. Even more lives could be saved by teaching "kangaroo care," in which moms carry their tiny babies nestled skin-to-skin on their bare chests for warmth when no incubators are available. (Read more premature baby stories.)