A re-analysis of data on the cause of infant deaths from 2002, carried out by researchers from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that premature birth was responsible for twice as many infant deaths as previously estimated.
Using a standard classification of the leading causes of death, just 17 per cent of infant mortality in 2002 was attributed to preterm birth. However, two thirds of infant deaths occurred in children born before 37 weeks gestation.
Researchers re-assessed the role of preterm birth in the development of the top 20 leading causes of infant death.
They found preterm birth was accountable for 40 per cent of infant mortality from the 20 leading causes of infant death, which together were responsible for 80 per cent of the 27,970 infant deaths recorded in the US in 2002.
The top single cause of death was congenital malformations, deformations and chromosomal abnormalities, which caused 5,630 deaths.
However, preterm birth was the underlying cause of the development of a number of conditions fatal to the infant, including respiratory distress, atelectasis, necrotising enterocolitis and pregnancy complications.