The Number-One Cause of Death in Young Kids Is...

Just in time for World Prematurity Day, the March of Dimes has released some shocking news: Complications from premature birth are now the leading cause of death in young children worldwide, according to new findings published in The Lancet—and it's not just an "other countries" problem: Out of 162 high-resource countries, the United States ranks a dismal 141st when it comes to child deaths due to preterm birth.

Of the estimated 6.3 million deaths of children under the age of five in 2013, complications from preterm births accounted for nearly 1.1 million deaths, according to new findings published in The Lancet by a research team coordinated by Robert Black, M.D., of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, together with World Health Organization and London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

And in the U.S., specifically, 28.1 percent of deaths of children under 5 years old—that translates to 8,100—come from direct complications related to preterm birth.

While these stats may sound scary, the news isn't all bad. ""The success we've seen in the ongoing fight against infectious diseases demonstrates that we can also be successful if we invest in prevention and care for preterm birth," said the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine's Joy Lawn, M.D., Ph.D., a member of the research team and a long-term advisor to Save the Children.

Many of the causes for preterm birth are still a mystery to doctors, but to combat this the March of Dimes has invested $75 million as part of its Campaign to End Premature Birth. This money has gone toward creating three new collaborative research centers across the country devoted exclusively to understanding premature birth. Just today, March of Dimes announced plans to open a fourth, at the University of Pennsylvania.

"These centers are really providing a novel, trans-disciplinary approach to preterm birth because it's such a complex issue," Diane Ashton, M.D., deputy medical director of the March of Dimes and an ob-gyn in New York City, told

Environmental exposure, access to medical care, and genetic predilection all play some role in preterm birth, Dr. Asthon said, and researchers at these centers will focus in on these areas.

Education is key, as well. "Prematurity is such an important contributor to infant death, not only in the U.S., but globally," Dr. Ashton said. "By raising awareness it allows us to pull together resources that are necessary."

If you've had a preemie, this news is especially troubling, we know. But new research shows that most preemies can catch up to their full term peers in cognitive testing by the time they are teenagers. A study published in The Journal of Pediatrics in July found that the family and social environment that a child is raised in plays a much bigger role in cognitive development than gestational age.

In the meantime, there are known steps mothers can take to prevent this condition, such as getting prenatal care early and getting chronic conditions like obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure under control as much as possible.

The bottom line: "There is a lot more we can do," Dr. Ashton said. "We're definitely going in the right direction, but we have a long way to go."

Want to help out? Check out your state's March of Dimes Facebook page for more information on donating and getting involved.

Did you experience a preterm birth? You can share your own story on this March of Dimes interactive map.

Photo courtesy of the March of Dimes.

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