Britain: Fifteen million babies are born too soon every year and 1.1 million die shortly after birth, making premature birth the second leading cause of death in children under age 5, according to the first ever national, regional and global estimates of preterm birth.

Survivors of premature birth often face a lifetime of disability, including serious infections, cerebral palsy, brain injury and respiratory, vision, hearing, learning and developmental problems.

"Born Too Soon: The Global Action Report on Preterm Birth" highlight the need for more research into the causes of preterm birth and how to prevent it. It says more than one in every 10 babies is born prematurely and preterm birth rates are increasing in almost all countries with reliable data.

"Born Too Soon" is a joint effort of almost 50 organisations, including the Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth (GAPPS), an initiative of Seattle Children's.

"Even if every known intervention was implemented around the world, we would still see 13.8 million preterm births each year; we could only prevent eight per cent," said Craig Rubens, executive director of GAPPS and contributor to the report.

"This report sounds the alarm that prematurity is an enormous global health problem that urgently demands more research and resources," he added, according to a GAPPS statement.

Of the 11 countries with preterm birth rates over 15 percent, all but two are in sub-Saharan Africa. Preterm births account for 11.1 percent of the world's live births, 60 percent of them in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. In the poorest countries, on average, 12 percent of babies are born too soon, compared to nine percent in higher income countries.

However, the problem of preterm births is not confined to low income countries. The US and Brazil both rank among the top 10 countries with the highest number of preterm births. In the US, about 12 percent, or more than one in nine births, are preterm.

"Treating premature infants is like trying to stop a snowball once it's 99 percent of the way down the mountain and has become an avalanche," Rubens said. "The emphasis needs to be on prevention strategies that work everywhere, especially in low resource, high burden settings."

(Agencies)

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