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About one third of all infant deaths in the US are associated with preterm births. Preterm infants who survive are at higher risk of early death and lifelong neurologic and intellectual problems. This reality prompted the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention to scrutinize the risk factors influencing preterm births in the US.

The rate of preterm births, defined as those at less than 37 completed weeks’ gestation, rose 30 percent during from 1981 to 2006. However, the rate declined in 2007 and has continued to do so through 2010 from a high of 12.8 percent in 2006 to 12 percent. Despite improvements in the rate of preterm births, the total number of infants born preterm remains higher than any year during 1981 to 2001.

Decreases in preterm births occurred for all of the race groups studied including white, black, Hispanic, American Indian/Alaska Native, and Asian/Pacific Islander from 2006 to 2010. During this time, the preterm birth rate for black infants declined by 8 percent to 17.1 percent, the lowest level ever reported. Despite the decrease, the 2010 preterm rate for black infants was about 60 percent higher than that for white infants (10.8 percent). American Indian/Alaska Native (13.6 percent) and Hispanic (11.8 percent) infants were also at a higher risk for preterm birth in 2010 than white and Asian/Pacific Islander infants.

The largest differences among the race groups are in those born at less than 34 weeks gestation. Decreases in early preterm births occurred from 2006 to 2010 for white, black, and Hispanic infants. The 2010 early preterm birth rate among black infants (6.1 percent) was double the rate of whites (2.9 percent) and Asian/Pacific Islanders (2.9 percent).

The rate of late preterm births, those born from 34 to 36 weeks, declined among each race groups during 2006 to 2010. In 2010, black infants were about 40 percent more likely to be born late preterm than white and Asian/Pacific Islander infants. American Indian/Alaska Native and Hispanic infants also were more likely than white and Asian/Pacific Islander infants to be born late preterm.

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