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One out of every eight babies born in the U.S. is born early, and it's getting worse.
The rate has increased 27% in the last 15 years.
Premature birth is the leading cause of infant death, as well as cerebral palsy, mental retardation, blindness and deafness.
Despite all the advances in medical technology, we've made little progress in preventing prematurity. We know that infections, mulitiple births, smoking and illicit drug use can increase the risk. But in over 50% of cases, the cause is unknown.
Dr. Paul Meis, a premature delivery researcher, says, "This is the biggest problem we have in obstetrics by far."
Dr. Meis may have found a way to help women at high risk of preterm delivery. In Dr. Meis's study, women with a history of preterm birth were given weekly injections of a form of the hormone progesterone. Others were given a dummy injection. The results were dramatic.
"In the group that received progesterone, there was about a 35% decrease in the rate of preterm birth," Dr. Meis explains.
Progesterone is thought to be important throughout pregnancy, helping keep the uterus relaxed and preventing miscarriage.
Dr. Meis says the study suggests progesterone injections could offer a simple way of treating a very serious problem.
"If we can reduce that risk, reduce the number of preterm births, we can prevent the heartache and the anxiety of the families that have a preterm baby, and improve the health of the babies that are born," Dr. Meis says.
In the year 2001, nearly half a million babies were born early in the U.S. This comes with a tremendous physical, emotional, and financial cost. The average hospital charge for a premature baby is $58,000, compared to $4,300 for a typical newborn.