Ga. improves on preterm births, still gets low grade

Georgia lowered its preterm birth rate last year, but the state still received a “D’’ grade on the annual preterm birth report card released Tuesday by the March of Dimes.

The reduction of Georgia’s preterm birth rate – from 13.8 percent to 13.2 percent – is part of a national trend. Forty states saw improvement in their rates between 2010 and 2011, the March of Dimes reported. The largest declines occurred among babies born at 34 to 36 weeks of pregnancy.

“Georgia’s progress means that more babies are being born healthy, excess health care costs are being reduced, and families are being spared the heartache of having a baby born too soon,” said Sheila Ryan, state director of the March of Dimes.

Almost 20,000 babies are born too soon in Georgia each year.

Ryan noted that public health officials in Georgia and 47 other states have agreed to accept a national challenge to reduce their preterm rates by 8 percent. According to the most recent data, the state’s percentage of babies born prematurely has been reduced to 12 percent.

The nation, once again, received a “C” on the March of Dimes report card. Grades are based on comparing each state’s and the nation’s 2011 preliminary preterm birth rates with the March of Dimes’ 2020 goal of 9.6 percent of all live births.

The U.S. preterm birth rate is 11.7 percent, a decline of more than 8 percent from the peak of 12.8 percent in 2006. This is the fifth consecutive year the national preterm birth rate has declined.

“We will continue to work together to improve access to health care, help women quit smoking and, through our ‘Healthy Babies Are Worth the Wait’ consumer education campaign, encourage women and health care providers to avoid scheduling a delivery before 39 weeks of pregnancy unless medically necessary,” Ryan said.

Three Southeastern states – Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama – scored F’s on the report card.

Preterm births – those before 37 completed weeks of pregnancy – cost the U.S. more than $26 billion annually, according to the Institute of Medicine. And preterm birth is the leading cause of newborn death.

Babies who survive an early birth often face the risk of lifetime health challenges, such as breathing problems, cerebral palsy and mental retardation.

The causes of preterm births are not understood in all cases. But the risk factors include a lack of prenatal care, as well as alcohol consumption, drug use and smoking by pregnant women.

Another factor is the high number of early Caesarean-section deliveries that are not medically necessary.

The March of Dimes is working with Georgia hospitals to reduce the number of early elective deliveries (EEDs), which are medically unnecessary inductions and C-sections scheduled before 39 weeks of pregnancy.

The Georgia Hospital Association and its member hospitals, as well as the Georgia Department of Public Health, are also partnering in this effort.

Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, commissioner of Public Health, said Tuesday at the agency board meeting that the state ‘’is making progress’’ on lowering elective deliveries.