ALBANY, N.Y., Jan. 7 (UPI) -- New York state's premature birth rate dropped in the past two years, the head of the state's Health Department says.
Dr. Nirav R. Shah, the state's health commissioner, said the rate of premature birth -- infants born earlier than 37 weeks of gestation -- dropped from 12.2 percent in 2009 to 10.9 percent in 2011. The U.S. rate is 11.7 percent.
Each year, more than a half-million U.S. babies are born prematurely and it puts them at higher risk for infant death, breathing problems, low blood sugar and other complications that often result in longer hospital stays in neonatal intensive care units.
As premature babies grow, they are more likely to develop significant health problems such as cerebral palsy, mental retardation, vision and hearing problems, and learning difficulties.
"Babies need a healthy start, and full-term pregnancy helps them get that start," Shah said in a statement. "Our work with birthing hospitals, home visiting programs and other practitioners to raise the quality of prenatal care and support women and their families during pregnancy is yielding results."
Shah noted women can help to prevent premature birth by ensuring they are in optimal health before becoming pregnant and securing good prenatal care.
"Stopping tobacco and alcohol use, exercising, maintaining a healthy weight and normal blood pressure, seeking regular healthcare for medical issues such as diabetes and high blood pressure, and reducing stress all help," Shah said.
The cost of medical care for premature babies is 10 times higher than for full-term infants in their first year of life -- about $30,000 versus $3,000, Shah said.