The number of babies born too early has reached a 15-year high, putting growing numbers of infants at risk of physical and intellectual disability, the March of Dimes reported this week.
The nonprofit’s latest report reveals that more than 1 in 100 babies, or 10.5%, born in the United States in 2021 were born at least three weeks before what is considered full-term: 40 weeks of gestation. This represents a 4% increase from 2020.
“This is the highest rate of premature births we have ever recorded,” said Dr Zsakeba Henderson, Deputy Chief Medical Officer of March of Dimes. March of Dimes began ranking states for child and maternal health in 2007.
People of color or those who live in poor areas are most at risk of premature birth.
“Black mothers and Native American mothers continued to have increases” in preterm births last year, Henderson said. “That disability gap has continued to widen in this latest report.” According to the report, women of color were 60% more likely than other women to give birth prematurely.
Babies born before 37 weeks gestation are at higher risk for a myriad of chronic health problems, such as asthma, blindness, deafness and intellectual disabilities.
The nonprofit’s annual report gives the nation a D+ when it comes to preterm births.
Alabama, with a 13.1% premature birth rate, is one of the lowest ranked states in the country. He and eight other Southeast states received failing grades on the report.
“We’re failing moms and babies,” said Martha Wingate, director of the Alabama Perinatal Quality Collaborative at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “No matter who you are, if you’re pregnant and giving birth in Alabama, you have a higher risk of dying, of your baby dying, period.”
She attributes the dire situation for mothers and their newborns, in part, to differences in overall health in Alabama. The state has some of the highest rates of high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes in the country.
One of the problems is that a large portion of Alabama’s population must drive for hours to get help in an emergency.
“We have places in the state where women live two or three hours from the nearest birthing hospitals,” Wingate said. “Our results shouldn’t look like this. We can do better.” Wingate was charged with improving the state’s premature birth rate by improving maternal and fetal health.
Transportation is also the “No. 1 barrier” in Arkansas, said Dr. Ashley Ross, chief of neonatology at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock.
“Either they don’t have reliable transportation or they’re so far away that they can’t afford to travel that long distance regularly to access care,” Ross said.
“It’s hard to watch this trend,” he said. “It’s really heartbreaking.”
Other states that received failing grades on the March of Dimes were Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina and West Virginia. All had preterm birth rates of at least 11.5%.
Only Vermont, with a premature birth rate of less than 8.1 percent, earned an A on the March of Dimes report card.
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