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Preterm births in the U.S. rise for the first time in 8 years

Nov 3, 2016

The rate of babies born prematurely in the U.S. worsened for the first time in eight years, according to the latest March of Dimes Premature Birth Report Card released this week.

The U.S. preterm birth rate increased from 9.57 births per 100 to 9.63 per 100 in 2015. According to NPR:

Overall, the national uptick earned the U.S. a C rating on an A to F scale. The March of Dimes researchers used data compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics and assigned grades using a formula that compared the state's current prenatal birth rate to the national average in 2014 and the organization's goal of 8.1 percent. 

The rise was driven by worsening rates among specific racial and ethnic groups as well as geographic areas. Preterm births were nearly 48% higher among black women, and more than 15% higher among American Indian and Alaska Native women compared to white women, according to the March of Dimes. Jennifer L. Howse is president of the March of Dimes. She said in a press release:

The 2016 March of Dimes Report Card demonstrates that there is an unfair burden of premature birth among specific racial and ethnic groups as well as geographic areas. The March of Dimes strives for a world where every baby has a fair chance, yet we see this is not the reality for many mothers and babies. Babies in this country have different chances of surviving and thriving simply based on the circumstances of their birth.

Preterm birth is defined as a birth before 37 weeks of pregnancy. It is the leading cause of death of babies in the U.S.

Babies who survive a preterm birth may face breathing problems, feeding difficulties, developmental delays, and vision and hearing problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preterm births cost more than $26 billion annually in avoidable medical and societal costs.

Preterm birth rates and grades by state
Credit The March of Dimes

Preterm birth is also the leading cause of death in kids under the age of five globally. The U.S. ranks among the 10 countries with the greatest number of preterm births, according to the World Health Organization. Edward McCabe is chief medical officer of the March of Dimes. He said in a press release:

Americans lead the world in medical research and care, yet the U.S. preterm birth rate still ranks near the bottom of high-resource nations. We can do better by mobilizing resources and driving best practices and policies to ensure that no mother or baby falls through the cracks.

The complexity of preterm birth, coupled with a lack of understanding of what causes it makes prevention a challenge. But there are things women can do to help reduce the risk, including avoiding tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs, as well as getting prenatal care as soon as they know they are pregnant.

And according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, expanding interventions nationwide in the most challenged communities would improve the preterm birth rates, including:

  • Reduce non-medically indicated (elective) deliveries;
  • Increase use of progesterone for women with a history of preterm birth;
  • Encourage women to space pregnancies at least 18 months apart;
  • Expand group prenatal care;
  • Increase use of low-dose aspirin to prevent preeclampsia;
  • Advance interventions for women diagnosed with a short cervix; and
  • Reduce multiple births conceived through assisted reproductive technology.

The March of Dimes has a goal of lowering the rate of preterm births in the U.S. to 8.1 percent by 2020. McCabe told Kaiser Health News:

We want every baby, no matter where they're born, no matter their birth ethnicity, to be born with the best start in life. Every woman is trying to do the best that she can," he says. "We need to show her what can be done.

You can check out the 2016 March of Dimes Premature Birth Report Card here.