U.S. premature birth rate declines, but still too high, March of Dimes report says

The number of U.S. babies born prematurely has dropped in recent years, according to a new report from the March of Dimes, a public health organization.

The report, which focuses on premature birth rates and survival rates, measures prematurity in the first month of life using the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention birth weight guidelines and other health metrics.

The prevalence of preterm birth in the country declined by 6.4 percent in 2015-2016, while the number of preterm births in the U.S. fell to 27.2 percent, down from 28.2 percent in 2011-2012, the report found.

Despite the improvements, more than 500,000 American babies were born prematurely in 2015-2016. That’s a 0.9 percent decrease from the previous year, the report said.

Although higher rates of premature birth have long been associated with decreased life expectancy, the findings from the report published Thursday may bring mixed news for American mothers who prepare for their baby’s arrival: Hospitals may be performing fewer births prematurely, but the chance of surviving the first week of life continues to decline, the report said.

For mothers in some parts of the country, better information and access to prenatal care have made preterm birth rates decline, according to the report. Health insurance also plays a role: The CDC and March of Dimes report that poverty and low socioeconomic status have a greater impact on pregnancy and delivery outcomes, which has kept some preterm births from reaching critical stages.

According to the report, preterm birth rates in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia fell by 15 percent between 2011-2012 and 2015-2016, but in Arkansas, Tennessee and New Hampshire, the rates of preterm birth increased by 5 percent or more over that time.

Preterm birth is defined as about 37 weeks of pregnancy when the baby’s birth weight is at or below 2,050 grams (4.9 pounds). Babies born more than 40 weeks gestation are considered stillborn.

There is some concern that the United States could be repeating the pattern of declining premature birth rates seen in the early 2000s, which prompted some experts to attribute that trend to increasing access to care for low-income families.

Because of efforts from many organizations and a rising awareness of the health risks of preterm birth, less than 30 percent of babies born in the United States now survive after their first week of life, compared to nearly 60 percent in 2008, according to the report.

A lower survival rate increases the risk of obesity, diabetes, asthma and chronic kidney disease later in life, according to the report. About 42 percent of premature babies survive and fully function in school, compared to 58 percent of babies who died before reaching a year of age, the March of Dimes said.

“We have a lot of data, science and insight now available in the last 15 years to understand this important challenge. In addition, we now have a better understanding of the causes of preterm birth, which could lead to solutions,” said Dr. Sandra Black, president of the March of Dimes, in a statement.

“I am encouraged by this progress, but the overall number of babies born before they are due is still too high and there is more work to be done,” she said.

The March of Dimes encouraged the public to take action to improve preterm birth rates. The organization’s message included steps people can take to improve the health of both expectant mothers and babies:

For expectant moms, it involves getting routine prenatal care. Studies show that if women make regular visits to a health care provider, they have a 30 percent lower risk of birth defects, the March of Dimes said.

For families, it includes educating them on the importance of delivering in a health-care setting and being knowledgeable about complications.

For hospitals, it involves quality-of-care initiatives that ensure expectant moms are getting the recommended care, the March of Dimes said.

Though April is National Prematurity Awareness Month, a new March of Dimes report released last year raised concerns about the failure of California and several other states to comply with federal requirements that they meet national health standards for caring for premature babies.

The report, titled “Without a Compelling Plan,” found the number of premature babies in California rising for the fourth consecutive year. The state’s premature birth rate was 36.6 percent, compared to the national average of 27.2 percent.

The report was based on the most recent official statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with medical records, hospital discharge records and blood, tissue and urine samples.

The Washington Post

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