Premature Birth Endangers 15M Babies Worldwide

VIDEO: Dr. Joy Lawn reveals a startling fact about an unrecognized killer.

Premature birth and its accompanying health dangers kill 1.1 million babies worldwide each year, making it the second-leading cause of death for children under age 5, according to a new global report.

The report, called " Born Too Soon," is the first ever to focus on the problems facing babies born prematurely, defined as birth before 37 weeks in the womb.

Nearly 15 million babies face the health risks of pre-term birth each year, accounting for about 1 in 10 live births around the world, in countries rich and poor. According to the report, the U.S. ranks sixth on the list of 184 countries with the highest rates of pre-term births, far higher than other high-income countries.

But where a baby is born makes all the difference when it comes to surviving after a premature birth, said Dr. Joy Lawn, co-editor of the report and the Director of Global Evidence and Policy at Saving Newborns Lives at Save the Children.

"A baby born very pre-term, less than 28 weeks, who is born in America has a more than 90 percent chance of survival. And if that same baby was born in Africa where I live and work and spent most of my life, that baby would have less than 10 percent chance of survival," Lawn told ABC News' chief health and medical editor, Dr. Richard Besser.

The statistic hits close to home for Lawn, who was born in rural Uganda.

"I was born in a bush hospital with no running water and no electricity. I was a little bit pre-term, and my mother had a very complicated labor," Lawn said. "I survived because people shouted for me, and you know, still that same hospital- no running water, no electricity.   This is still a reality."

Two-thirds of pre-term births occur in countries across Africa and southern Asia, where early births usually are the result of high rates of adolescent pregnancies and infections, such as malaria and HIV. In the U.S., older women who give birth, twins and triplets conceived using fertility treatments and high rates of C-section deliveries and induced labors account for the nearly 500,000 premature births annually.

Pre-term births are also more common for African American than for white babies.

Lawn said even if children are born prematurely, they don't have to die. She and her colleagues at Save the Children have a goal of cutting the number of deaths due to preterm birth in half by 2025.

"We believe there's a huge number, 80 percent of the 15 million babies born too soon, were less than two months too soon," Lawn said. "They really are not born to die, they can survive and we can change that."

Simple low-cost solutions, such as keeping babies warm through skin-to-skin contact of Kangaroo Mother Care, could save 400,000 babies, Lawn estimates. Giving mothers prenatal steroids and emphasizing breastfeeding can save thousands more.

And Lawn said she hopes American mothers will advocate for mothers in developing countries who need support and education.

"I would like to challenge the moms of America to be a voice for moms who aren't able to speak up," she said.

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