U.S. 30th in global infant mortality

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States ranks 30th in terms of infant mortality, an important measure of the quality of healthcare, according to a report released on Tuesday.

Most of the deaths are among pre-term infants and the United States has a very high rate of pre-term births, according to the report from the National Center for Health Statistics.

“In 2005, the latest year that the international ranking is available for, the United States ranked 30th in the world in infant mortality, behind most European countries, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, and Israel,” the NCHS, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in the report.

"One in 8 births in the United States were born preterm, compared with 1 in 18 births in Ireland and Finland," added the report, availablehere.

“If the United States had Sweden’s distribution of births by gestational age, nearly 8,000 infant deaths would be averted each year and the U.S. infant mortality rate would be one-third lower.”

The March of Dimes, a charity specializing in birth defects and problems, estimates that more than 540,000 U.S. babies are born early -- before 37 weeks’ gestation -- each year.

“Too many U.S. babies are born too soon each year and don’t live to celebrate their first birthday. This finding underscores the importance of supporting research to help us learn what causes preterm birth and how we can help give all babies a healthy start in life,” said Dr. Alan Fleischman, medical director for the March of Dimes.

Public health experts look at infant mortality in calculating the quality of a country’s healthcare system. The United States is often ranked behind other industrialized countries, in part because of the infant mortality rates.

“Infant mortality is an important indicator of the health of a nation, and the recent stagnation (since 2000) in the U.S. infant mortality rate has generated concern among researchers and policy makers,” the NCHS report said.

“The percentage of preterm births in the United States has risen 36 percent since 1984.”

Smoking and alcohol abuse can lead to pre-term birth but so can fertility treatments resulting in multiple births.

Reporting by Maggie Fox; Editing by Peter Cooney