Vermont leads the nation in preventing preterm births, according to a new report.
The state's preterm birth rate is 9.3 percent, while 12.2 percent of babies from the entire U.S. are born early, according to the report from the March of Dimes based on information from 2009.
Preterm birth, or birth before 37 weeks gestation, is the leading cause of newborn death, and babies who survive an early birth often face the risk of lifelong health challenges, according to a 2006 Institute of Medicine report.
Most states have seen decreases in their rate of preterm birth in recent years, leading to an overall decline in early births in the country. In 2006, the preterm birth rate in the United States was 12.8 percent.
"The three-year improvement in the U.S. preterm birth rate means that 40,000 more babies were given a healthy start in life and spared the risk of lifelong health consequences of an early birth," said Dr. Jennifer Howse, president of the March of Dimes. "Now we owe it to the other half a million infants who were born too soon to work together to give them the same chance."
The report, called the March of Dimes 2011 Premature Birth Report Card, graded each state based on how much progress it had made toward reaching the organization's goal of reducing preterm birth rates to 9.6 percent by 2020.
The three states with the highest preterm birth rates (Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana) received an F. These states had rates of 18 percent, 15.6 percent and 14.7 percent, respectively.
Eleven states and the District of Columbia earned a D, 19 states got a C, 16 states received a B and only Vermont earned an A. Oregon came in second to Vermont, with a rate of 9.8 percent.
Overall, the United States received a C.
The improvement is likely due to a variety of health interventions, including a reduction in the number of medically unnecessary cesarean sections and inductions scheduled before 39 weeks of pregnancy , according to the March of Dimes.
Also, new treatments, such as the hormone treatment progesterone, which has been shown to prevent some preterm births in some women, has helped lower the preterm birth rate.
Preterm birth costs the United States more than $26 billion annually, according to the 2006 Institute of Medicine report. The rate's drop since 2006 saved at least $2 billion in health care and socioeconomic costs, Howse said.
Babies who survive an early birth have an increased risk of breathing problems, cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities and others. Even babies born just a few weeks early have higher rates of hospitalization and illness than full-term infants.
The March of Dimes' goal of decreasing the rate to 9.6 percent could be achieved by giving all women of childbearing age access to health care coverage, and fully implementing proven ways to reduce the risk, such as not smoking during pregnancy, getting preconception and early prenatal care. The organization also recommended avoiding multiple births from fertility treatments and avoiding elective c-sections and inductions before 39 weeks of pregnancy unless medically necessary.
Pass it on: Most states have improved their preterm birth rate in the last three years.