$26 billion dollar bill for prem babies each year

According to experts one in every eight babies now is born prematurely and they are calling for earlier ultrasound examinations during pregnancy and tighter guidelines for infertility treatment as essential in the battle to control what they say is a growing problem.

That figure equates to more than 500,000 babies a year and costs the economy billions of dollars.

The Institute of Medicine estimates that there has been a 30 percent increase since 1981 of premature births rates in the United States which costs society at least $26 billion a year.

The Institute is an independent group that advises the federal government on medical issues.

Richard Behrman, executive chair of the Pediatric Education Steering Committee in California, who chaired the Institute panel says despite great improvements in the survival of infants born preterm, little is known about how preterm births can be prevented.

A previous preterm baby apparently doubles the risk of a second and carrying twins increases prematurity risk by 40 percent, odds that worsen with triplets or more.

The Institute says use of in-vitro fertilization and other assisted reproductive technologies has risen dramatically in the past 20 years and more older women are having children.

Both assisted fertility and older childbearing raise the risk of multiple births and such babies are often born early.

The Institute says among infants conceived using these methods, 61.7 percent of twins and 97.2 percent of triplets and other 'higher-order' multiples were born preterm, and even single babies conceived by in-vitro fertilization are more likely to be preterm.

Such babies often spend weeks in neonatal intensive care units and often have health problems as they grow older.

The cause of most preterm births is unclear and doctors are at a loss when it comes to preventing them, and urgent research is needed says the Institute to try to turn the tide.

Dr. Jay Iams of Ohio State University one of the authors of the study says it can happen to anyone and is a problem that is not appreciated by the public.

A full-term pregnancy lasts from 38 to 42 weeks and babies born before completion of week 37 are considered premature.

Those born before 32 weeks face the greatest risks of death and about one-fifth don't survive a year and survivors often have devastating disabilities such as cerebral palsy and retardation.

Even babies born just a few weeks early can face developmental delays and other problems.

The Institute is recommending that more pregnant women receive a first-trimester ultrasound exam, which is the only way to be certain of the fetus' exact age and is particularly important if the woman later has labor induced or a Caesarean section before her due date.

They also want stronger guidelines that reduce the number of multiple births as a result of infertility treatment.

During in-vitro fertilization, doctors often implant several embryos at once into a woman's womb.

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