Less preterm babies
The number of US preterm, low birth weight babies is decreasing.
The encouraging news: After several decades of steady increases, the percentages of infants born preterm and the percentage born with low birth weight declined slightly in 2007 in the US, according to a report released today.

The bad news: In 2007, 18% of all US children ages 0 to 17 lived in poverty, up from 17% the year before, Dr. Duane Alexander, Director of Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, noted at a telebriefing describing highlights of the US government's annual report on the well-being of American children.

"Infants born preterm and of low birth weight are at increased risk for infant death and they also have a greater chance of lifelong disabilities such as blindness, deafness and cerebral palsy, making this an extremely important indicator of child well-being," Alexander noted.

According to the report, in 2007, the percentage of infants born preterm (before 37 weeks of pregnancy instead of the normal 40 weeks) was 12.7%, down from 12.8% in 2006. The percentage of infants born with low birth weight (less than 5.5 pounds) was 8.2% in 2007, down from 8.3% in 2006. "

"Both of these indicators of child well-being have been increasing for years," Alexander noted, "so any easing of these trends is welcome news. Unfortunately, at this point, we don't know if the decreases are the beginning of a trend or just a minor fluctuation," he acknowledged.

The statistics on underage drinking also provide some encouraging news. Heavy alcohol drinking by 8th grade students declined from the most recent peak of 13% in 1996 to 8% in 2008. For 10th grade students, heavy drinking declined from 24% in 2000 to 16% in 2008. For 12th grade students, heavy drinking fell from 32% in 1998 to 25% a decade later in 2008.

But the data on the economic "health" of the nation's children are "not so encouraging," Alexander noted. In addition to the number of children living in poverty in 2007 noted above, the percentage of children who had at least one parent working full-time year round was 77% in 2007, down from 78% in 2006.

"These indicators show children losing ground," Alexander said, and "they predate the current economic downturn," he noted.

On a brighter note, the report indicates that in 2007, 89% of children had health insurance coverage at some point during the year, up slightly from 88% in 2006.

Nonetheless, the number of children without health insurance at any time during 2007 was 8.1 million, or 11% of all US children, said Dr. Edward Sondik, Director for the National Center for Health Statistics.

"And we have no data for 2008 or 2009, when the economic downturn really hit hard and when you'd expect to see the largest impact," Sondik emphasized.

The 216-page government report -- America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2009 -- "strikes a balance between yearly changes in children's status and long-term trends, which highlight progress or warn of needed improvement," Alexander said.


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