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TUESDAY, May 11 (HealthDay News) -- After nearly three decades of increases in the number of premature births in the United States, health officials report that the rate has dropped 4% over a two-year period.
"Prematurity is a risk factor for early death and long-term morbidity, so any decline is welcome and we are hoping that this marks the beginning of a new trend downward in this disturbing rate," said report author Joyce A. Martin, an epidemiologist at the National Center for Health Statistics, which is part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
According to the report, the rate of preterm births has declined, from 12.8% of births in 2006 to 12.3% in 2008.
From 1981 to 1990, the rate of preterm deliveries rose 13% and from 1990 to 2006 it rose more than 20%, according to the report.
Furthermore, the number of preterm births are down for all women under 40 regardless of race or ethnicity. From 2006 to 2008, the rate of preterm births dropped 5% among both blacks and whites.
Among Hispanic women, the rate of preterm deliveries dropped from 12.3% in 2007 to 12.1% in 2008. This decline followed a small increase in preterm births from 2006 to 2007, the researchers noted.
Preterm births also dropped across the country, with 35 states seeing a significant decline. Only Hawaii saw an increase in preterm deliveries.
Moreover, fewer preterm infants are being delivered by Cesarean, according to the report.
The reasons for the drop in preterm births isn't clear, Martin noted. "But we hope to better identify the reasons after we get more final data," she said.
"This is good news to see a fairly substantial decline in preterm rates," Martin added.
However, while these data are a hopeful sign, the rate of premature deliveries still remains higher than in any year from 1981 to 2002, the researchers noted.
Dr. Gene Burkett, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, said that "it's a little too early to be sure if this is a trend. Obviously, it is encouraging."
Burkett thinks one reason for the decline is a change in how women at risk for preterm delivery are treated. "We now take more of a prevention mode," he said.
In addition, conditions that lead to premature delivery such as diabetes and high blood pressure are also managed better, he pointed out. "We have been more aggressive in trying to stabilize those diseases," he explained.
"For two years it's encouraging, but it's not low enough and we need to see a substantial period of time before we can say this is really decreasing," Burkett said.
March of Dimes president Jennifer L. Howse said that "over two years we are looking at a decline of 4%, which is, I think, a significant tipping point in this health problem."
Over the past 30 years, there have been increases in the preterm birth rate every year, Howse noted. "The fact that we have two years in a row of small, but nevertheless, significant drops is eye-catching," she said.
Howse noted the 4% drop between 2006 and 2008 means that "21,000 babies were spared the serious health risks of a premature birth."
However, Howse also thinks it's too early to call it a trend.
Several factors may be contributing to the decline, Howse said. For one, there is more awareness of the problem of prematurity by both women and the medical community, she said.
In addition, fewer women are having multiple births related to fertility treatments, she said. "All of the controversy around 'Octomom' did raise people's awareness," Howse said.
"Octomom" is Nadya Suleman, an unmarried American woman who drew international attention when she gave birth to octuplets in January 2009 via in vitro fertilization.
Women are also avoiding unnecessary early Cesarean deliveries, Howse said.
"I think this could be the start of something good. I really do," she said.
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