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Locally, premature boys face greater risks

Local hospitals have noticed that premature boys suffer more ailments than girls, but a worldwide trend showing a slightly higher premature birth rate among boys isn’t as conclusive here.

The new report on the health of the world’s newborns showed the gender difference isn’t large: About 55 percent of preterm births in 2010 were male.

Dr. Edward McCabe of the March of Dimes says pediatric specialists have long noticed that baby boys start out a bit more vulnerable.

“People are curious about it. We’d like to understand why this occurs,” McCabe said.

“This is a double whammy for boys,” said Dr. Joy Lawn of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, who led the team of researchers. “It’s a pattern that happens all over the world.”

One possible reason: Mothers have a higher risk of certain pregnancy complications – high blood pressure and placenta abnormalities – when carrying boys, Lawn said.

And if a boy preemie and a girl preemie are born at the same gestational age, the boy will be at higher risk of death or disability, she said. But the report concluded there is too little information to quantify how big that risk is.

“Girls walk sooner than boys. They talk sooner than boys. They develop more quickly. That’s also true in utero,” Lawn said. For a preterm baby, “the difference of a few days’ maturity between a boy and a girl can mean the difference between major lung complications or not.”

Locally, data since the beginning of the year show a slight trend toward boys being more likely to be born premature at St. Joseph Hospital in Fort Wayne. But at Lutheran Hospital, the rate slants slightly toward girls.

“Overall, it balanced out to where it was less than a percent in favor of boys being more preterm,” said Dr. James Cameron, medical director of the neonatal intensive care unit at Lutheran Hospital.

Year-to-date data at Dupont Hospital, also part of Lutheran Health Network, closely mirror the national report, with boys making up 53.6 percent of preterm births, spokesman Geoff Thomas said.

Parkview Health did not have prematurity rates by gender. But numbers from its Women’s and Children’s Hospital’s Newborn Intensive Care Unit show boys being admitted at a higher rate than girls, spokesman Eric Clabaugh said. That rate has declined slightly from 59.9 percent of admissions in 2010 to 56.5 percent so far this year, Clabaugh said.

Lutheran’s Cameron noted that preterm boys have a higher rate of health problems than girls but that there is no clear reason why, he said.

“We don’t have an answer for that yet, but I suspect over the next decade we probably will find out more of those answers,” Cameron said.

Indiana has started an infant mortality task force through the state health department, Cameron said. It started a little more than three years ago when Indiana was rated near the bottom among states for its prematurity and infant mortality rates, he added.

Indiana’s prematurity rates went from 11.6 percent in 2011 to 10.9 percent in 2012, Cameron said.

Prematurity is among the top reasons for the high infant mortality rate, Cameron said, and preterm babies are at greater risk of developmental problems as they get older.

“And so those are the things that by preventing prematurity we can hopefully impact the health of our country and overall make a bigger impact in society here,” Cameron said.

A report this month in the journal Pediatric Research examined newborn health and prematurity.

About 15 million babies worldwide are born too soon, most of them in Africa and parts of Asia where survival is difficult for fragile newborns. Globally, about 1 million babies die as a direct result of preterm birth, and another million die of conditions for which prematurity is an added risk, the researchers calculated.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.