For three decades, the rate of premature births climbed and climbed. Finally, in 2006, the rate leveled off and has even dropped slightly in the past three years. It’s now 12.2 percent of all births.
But according to the March of Dimes, the rate is still far too high. The organization was formed to fight polio, but now works to prevent birth defects.
“Prematurity is very complicated.”
Jennifer Howse is the national president.
“About half of preterm birth, we understand the reasons. And there are interventions that are being put into place and those will drive the rates of pre-term birth down in this country. The other 50 percent of preterm birth, we do not understand.”
We do know about some major factors that can lead to pre-term birth. For example, lack of health insurance for the pregnant mom, or smoking during pregnancy.
And a lot of women are undergoing elective C-sections too early.
Howse says having a baby even one or two weeks early can cause complications. She says women should insist on carrying the baby to full term, unless there is an actual medical reason to induce labor early.
Howse met with doctors at the Medical Center, but she also came here to address the Greater Houston Partnership.
“The business community should care about preterm birth, because it’s very costly. It’s costly because of health insurance coverage and premium increases. It’s costly in terms of workforce productivity, because mom and dad have to take more time off when baby is born preterm.”
If premature babies survive, they can end up with permanent brain damage or chronic health problems.
Howse says the complications cost the country $26 billion dollars a year.
In Texas, the rate of premature birth is 1 percentage point higher than the national average. A big reason is that in Texas, 35 percent of women of child-bearing age have no health insurance. That’s compared to twenty percent nationwide.
Dr. Charleta Guillory is a neonatologist at Texas Children’s Hospital, and a leader in the state chapter of the March of Dimes.
“And as a doctor working in a neonatal unit every day, I see the way that it affects families. You’re working, you have this ideal pregnancy. You think you’re going to not have to take off from work that happens number one. Number two because of all the complications and stress of finances, it increases child abuse. It also increases the risk of having divorce in families.”
Guillory says Congress could help by re-authorizing the so-called Preemie Act. That law passed in 2006 and provided $65 million to fund research and prevention programs. But the funding expired this year.