This is the VOA Special English Development Report.
Each year millions of babies are born too soon and too small. Premature or preterm births are defined as births at less than thirty-seven weeks.
Prematurity is the leading cause of death in newborn babies. More than one-fourth of the four million newborns who die each year around the world were born too early.
Preterm babies that survive can suffer a lifetime of serious health conditions. The examples include cerebral palsy, blindness, hearing problems and learning disabilities. Families and communities face emotional, physical and financial costs.
Christopher Howson is the vice president for global programs at the March of Dimes, a nonprofit group. His group and the World Health Organization recently published a report called "The Global and Regional Toll of Preterm Birth."
CHRISTOPHER HOWSON: "Frankly the crisis of preterm birth is under-recognized, undercounted, undervalued and underfunded. I mean, this reports shows that thirteen million babies are born every year preterm, and that over a million of those babies die as a result of being born too early."
And these are just estimates; the true numbers could be even higher. More than eighty-five percent of preterm births happen in Africa and Asia. Africa has the highest rate, with about four million cases each year.
Chris Howson says many of the causes of preterm births are related to poverty and weak health-care systems.
CHRISTOPHER HOWSON: "For example, the poor overall health and nutritional status of women. A high burden of infectious diseases. Lack of provision of family planning -- allowing a women to decide when to start and end having children and how to space her children. And also the lack of good prenatal care programs that might identify problems early on in pregnancy."
Preterm births are a problem not just in the developing world. The combined rate in the United States and Canada is the second highest in the world. Preterm birth rates in the United States have increased thirty-six percent in the last twenty-five years.
This has been largely the result of two reasons. One is an increase in pregnancies among women over age thirty-five. The other is an increase in the use of reproductive therapies. Fertility treatments can produce multiple births, which increases the risk that the babies will arrive early.
One of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals for two thousand fifteen is to reduce death rates in young children by two-thirds. Chris Howson says premature births must be reduced if that goal is to be met. What is being done about this issue? That will be our subject next week.
that's the VOA Special English Development Report, written by June Simms.
Transcripts and MP3s are at voaspecialenglish.com. I'm Steve Ember.