There are nearly 13 million premature births worldwide each year, and of these more than a million die within a month of birth, according to a report by a US charity.
The problem mainly affects developing nations, with Africa and Asia accounting for more than 85 per cent of all premature births, though US premature births has increased 36 per cent over the past 25 years, according to research by the US group the March of Dimes released yesterday.
For purposes of the study, premature is considered as less than 37 full weeks of gestation.
While malnutrition and poor health care can explain many of the premature births in developing countries, factors in the United States include more women becoming pregnant beyond the age of 35, and more using assisted reproduction techniques, say the report authors.
"Premature births are an enormous global problem that is exacting a huge toll emotionally, physically, and financially on families, medical systems and economies," said March of Dimes president Jennifer Howse.
"In the United States alone, the annual cost of caring for preterm babies and their associated health problems tops 26 billion dollars annually," Howse said in a statement.
"If world leaders are serious about reaching the United Nation's Millennium Development Goals to reduce child mortality and improve maternal health, then strategies and funding for reducing death and disability related to preterm birth must receive priority," Howse said.