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Study: Steroid shots can save 7,000 preemies

Injecting steroids into mothers giving birth prematurely could save 7,000 infants a year and at least $157-million in health care costs, a National Institutes of Health panel said Wednesday.

The committee said all women at 24 to 34 weeks of pregnancy who show signs of a threatened premature birth are candidates for the therapy.

Doctors have been reluctant to use the corticosteroid treatment because of worries about side effects. The committee said risks from the drug are much less than the lethal complications often caused by prematurity.

Corticosteroids used in the procedure are synthetic forms of a hormone normally produced by the adrenal gland. Studies have shown that when injected into a birthing mother, the hormone is carried to the fetus where it accelerates development of blood vessels and lungs of the unborn.

About 100,000 premature babies are born annually in the United States and about a third of them die. The most lethal complications are respiratory distress, caused by immature lungs attempting to breathe, and bleeding in the brain. Using the corticosteroid therapy will save about half the threatened premature infants with these conditions, the panel said.