Nearly a half million babies were born prematurely in the United States during 2003, a 12.1-percent increase from the previous year.

A government report issued Thursday said 12.3 percent of all babies — 499,008 infants — were born at less than 37 weeks gestation during 2003, placing them at an increased risk of death and disability.

The report released by the National Center for Health Statistics said the rate was up from about 480,000 such babies born during 2002 — and up more than 30 percent since the government began tracking premature births in 1981.

Prematurity is the No. 1 killer of newborns, said Dr. Jennifer Howse, president of the March of Dimes. She said the statistics indicate the prematurity crisis in the United States continues to intensify, and will only become worse in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Howse said premature babies often suffer such illnesses as cerebral palsy, mental retardation, learning problems and blindness.

The March of Dimes says it wants to help the nation reach the goal set by the U.S. Public Health Service of reducing the rate of premature birth to 7.6 percent by 2010.

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