More work needed to prevent pre-term births in U.S.

January 3, 2014

There is no greater blessing than a healthy baby.

But in the United States, about one in nine babies is born too soon, putting them at higher risk for a range of health problems.

With our world-class health care system, you might presume the United States would have low premature birth rates, but we ranked 131st among nations in a global study done last year by the March of Dimes Foundation.

Almost all European nations, Russia, China and most of South America, had less than 10 pre-term births (before 37 weeks) per 100 births. The rate in the United States last year was 11.5 per 100 live births, and it is slightly higher in West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky. Kentucky’s rate of 12.7 percent is about the same as Cameroon and Angola, according to the study.

In fact, the U.S. premature birth rate was on the rise for many years, peaking at 12.6 percent in 2006.

Outreach efforts have helped bring it down nationally and in our region as well, but it is still too high and the cost to families and society is great.

Many organ systems, including the brain, lungs, and liver need the final weeks of pregnancy to develop fully, according to the Center for Disease Control. Pre-term factors have accounted for about 35 percent of all infant deaths in recent years, and it also is the leading cause of long-term neurological disabilities in children.

The estimated cost of pre-term births to the U.S. health care system is about $26 billion a year.

So, it is in everyone’s interest for our states to continue to work on improving access to prenatal care as well as outreach and education. There are many factors and unknowns that contribute to early births, but some factors are very preventable.

Take smoking, for example. West Virginia and Kentucky lead the nation in the percentage of women who smoke and those who smoke during some portion of their pregnancy. Unfortunately, the rate of women age 18-44 who smoke is more than 30 percent in both states and went up last year. Our states also have high rates of drug and alcohol use during pregnancy and high rates of teen pregnancies.

Getting that message out is a key initiative for several organizations in the state, including the March of Dimes. Help is available, and it is critical for women in our region to seek out the consistent prenatal care that they need.

— The Herald-Dispatch, Huntington