Understanding the danger of premature birth, working toward a brighter future for babies

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - World Prematurity Day is Thursday, November 17.

The global event is intended to raise awareness of preterm birth and the danger it poses. Approximately 15 million babies are born prematurely each year. That works out to about one in 10 births. An estimated 1.1 million die of complications.

While the problem may be more evident in developing countries, the United States is not immune. On average, there are 500,000 premature births in the U.S. each year. In fact, premature birth (37 weeks or less) is the leading cause of death for babies in the U.S.

Those who survive can face serious health consequences. According to the March of Dimes, those include "breathing problems, jaundice, vision loss, cerebral palsy and intellectual delays."

Alarmingly, the most recent numbers show premature birth rates in the U.S. are rising for the first time in eight years.  Alabama is one of three states with the highest preterm birth rates. The others are Mississippi and Louisiana.

So, what can be done?

Molly Harvey is a registered nurse, who manages Women's and Children's Services at Crestwood Medical Center. She stresses the importance of avoiding elective early inductions, since even just a few additional weeks of pregnancy can cut a newborn's risk of death in half.

That's in line with the March of Dimes stance that "continuing a pregnancy to at least 39 weeks is crucial to a baby's health."

"We want to do no less than 39 week inductions unless it has a medical indication, meaning that the mom is sick or the baby is sick. By doing that you eliminate a lot of unnecessary NICU admissions. What we call 'late pre-term babies' are still at high risk for NICU admissions," Harvey says.

Other studies have shown the importance of the woman's health prior to conception. Harvey says women considering having a baby should speak with their doctor to deal with any potential health concerns, such as high blood pressure or weight issues. Avoiding back-to-back pregnancies has also shown to lower the risk of premature birth.

Reducing the preterm birth rate is just one issue the March of Dimes continues to support with life-saving research. Much of its research and awareness is funded through events like the March for Babies.

Plans are already in the works for this spring's walk. It is scheduled for April 22 at UAH.  To find out more, contact Jennifer Roberts at  jroberts@marchofdimes.org.