U.S. Preterm Birth Rate Declines to Lowest in Decade

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Preterm births, the largest cause of death for newborns in the U.S., declined to the lowest level in a decade as part of a campaign to reduce the number of early deliveries, a report showed.

The number of U.S. babies born before the 37th complete week of pregnancy fell to 11.7 percent in 2011 after peaking at 12.8 percent in 2006, the fifth straight year of declining numbers, the March of Dimes said today in its Birth Report Card.

The nonprofit advocacy group, Department of Health and Human Services and American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in February announced “Strong Start,” building on a 2003 effort to encourage women and doctors to continue pregnancies to a full term before inducing labor or scheduling a cesarean section. Babies born at 39 weeks are less likely to have hearing and vision issues and have more time to gain weight, according to the March of Dimes. Those born prematurely cost the U.S. $26 billion in excess health spending a year, said Jennifer Howse, the group’s president.

“The U.S. is definitely on the right road now but we still have a ways to go,” Howse said in a Nov. 12 telephone interview. “The U.S. got a grade of ‘C’ on the March of Dimes’s report card, which is average, and that’s not good enough for the U.S. considering the high quality of health care and the level of financial investment we’ve made in health care in our country.”

By 2020, the March of Dimes hopes the U.S. has lowered its early birth rate to 9.6 percent, she said.

Anti-Smoking Programs

To help achieve the goal, more states also need to implement smoking cessation programs because about 23 percent of women of childbearing age smoke, Howse said. More women of childbearing age need health insurance so their pregnancy can be monitored and doctors need to use progesterone more often to prevent women from having early labor, she said.

In the report card, the White Plains, New York-based March of Dimes graded states by comparing their rate of preterm birth with the 2020 goal of 9.6 percent. In total, 45 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico improved their numbers in 2011 from 2009.

The group found that seven states and Washington lowered the percentage of women of childbearing age who were uninsured. Forty-three states, Washington and Puerto Rico reduced the number of babies born from 34 weeks to 36 weeks of pregnancy when many women and doctors schedule C-sections and inductions that aren’t medically necessary, according to the report.

State Grades

Vermont, Oregon, New Hampshire and Maine received ‘A’s on the report and had preterm birth rates of 9.6 percent or less, while Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Puerto Rico rated ‘F’s with preterm birth rates of 14.9 percent and higher.

Fifteen million babies are born early globally and more than 1 million die each year, according to the March of Dimes. A premature baby has medical costs that are 12 times higher than a baby born full term, Howse said.

In a report released in May, the U.S. ranked 131 of 184 countries in preterm birth, putting the country at the same level as Turkey, Somalia and Thailand, she said.

Still, Howse said, “the U.S. is one of four nations in the world where rates of preterm birth are dropping. You do have to look underneath that ranking.”

“Yes, it’s discouraging,” Howse said. “Yes, we need to do better, but we are on the right road,”


To contact the reporter on this story: Nicole Ostrow in New York at nostrow1@bloomberg.net

Story originally published by Bloomberg Businessweek


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