Healthy Babies are Worth the Wait

Jan 11, 2012, 4:32 PM, Posted by

Idea Gallery is a recurring editorial series on NewPublicHealth in which guest authors provide their perspective on issues affecting public health. Today, Jennifer L. Howse, PhD, president of the March of Dimes, comments on efforts to give more babies a healthier start in life. This week, a regional Infant Mortality Summit will kick off a collaborative, multi-State initiative to improve infant health outcomes.

A baby born in the United States today faces a one out of eight chance of being born too soon. Prematurity is a common, costly, serious and a largely silent health epidemic. The good news is that national, state and local health officials are addressing this problem with historic public health initiatives to give more babies a healthy start in life.

On Nov. 1, the United States received a grade of “C” on the March of Dimes 2011 Premature Birth Report Card. Preterm birth is the leading cause of newborn death. Babies who survive an early birth face an increased risk of serious life-long health challenges, such as breathing problems, cerebral palsy, or learning disabilities. Even babies born just a few weeks early have higher rates of hospitalization and illness than “full-term” infants (39-40 weeks of pregnancy). We’ve developed an educational campaign and a hospital-based toolkit to help parents and professionals better understand the critical importance of those last weeks of pregnancy to a baby’s health.

Although the U.S. preterm birth rate has improved slightly in recent years, nearly half a million infants still are born too soon. Each early birth places a terrible emotional toll on families and a financial burden on the health system. In fact, the first year health and medical costs of one preterm birth are nearly ten times more than a full term birth.

But, the problem hasn’t gone unheeded.

Concerned health officials, including Association of State and Territorial Health Officers (ASTHO) President David Lakey, MD, are working with the March of Dimes and other partners to implement new strategies and programs to improve maternal access to health care, lower maternal smoking rates, and improve the timing of elective deliveries—three modifiable risk factors that contribute significantly to preterm birth.

Dr. Lakey, Texas’s commissioner of Health Services, has set a goal to reduce premature birth in Texas by 8 percent by 2014, and he has challenged other members of ASTHO to do the same. In Texas alone, meeting the goal would mean more than 4,000 fewer babies born preterm every year, saving the state and employers an estimated $170 million in health care costs.

To help meet these goals, the March of Dimes created the “Healthy Babies are Worth the Wait,” initiative, which bundles together proven consumer and professional health education strategies with early prenatal care and hospital-based quality improvement programs, such as preventing unnecessary early deliveries. It was successfully piloted for three years in Kentucky as a partnership between the March of Dimes, Johnson & Johnson Pediatric Institute, and the Kentucky Department for Public Health and will soon be launched in two other states.

There is no single answer to the problem of premature birth. But health officials in many states have taken the initiative to implement proven strategies to address preterm. We applaud these important steps toward giving more babies a healthy start in life.


This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.