Premature babies: A growing health crisis
Weighing a mere 2 pounds, 1 ounce, Lauren was born prematurely. Three and a half months prematurely. Her parents, Nikki and Densel, were forced to anxiously watch for five months while she fought to beat the odds in a newborn intensive care unit. Although the family was prepared for the worst, Lauren’s story ends happily. After treatment for respiratory distress and several surgeries, she pulled through.
“Having a preemie taught me about what really matters in life. It made me realize that everything turns out the way it is supposed to, and, in our situation with Lauren, it turned out well and she is now a happy and healthy 7-year-old,” Nikki Fleming declared, citing her thankfulness for the research and dedication of the March of Dimes, a nonprofit that has fought prematurity since 2003.
However, for the half of a million babies born prematurely each year in the U.S., the story may not have that same fairytale ending.
Defined as births before 37 weeks of gestation, prematurity is actually quite common in the United States. One out of every eight babies in the U.S. is born preterm. As the leading cause of death and disability among infants, prematurity claims the lives of 1 million children worldwide every year.
“It is very expensive, emotionally to families as well as financially to both families and our country,” Janis Biermann, March of Dimes senior vice president for education and health promotion, said.
The greatest tragedy of prematurity is, of course, when the baby dies. A total of 19,000 premature infants die each year in the United States in the first month of life. As Biermann declared, that is 19,000 too many.
Partly due to underdeveloped organs, those infants that survive may suffer from visual and hearing problems, cerebral palsy, chronic lung disease, mental retardation, learning disorders and more. Many require weeks or months of care by specialized medical staff, with stays on average nine times longer than full-term babies.
And the financial cost is nothing to sneeze at. The medical costs of preterm babies are ten times that of full-term babies, and the economic costs (medical, educational and lost productivity) associated with prematurity reach about $26.2 billion annually.
Providing assistance for thousands of families each year, the March of Dimes funds hospital equipment and specialists who decode the medical lingo and provide emotional support for families with a premature baby in neonatal intensive care units, where the infants are housed during their struggling first weeks of life
“The babies are born very small and can have so many problems, so it is a very scary place to be, both certainly for the baby but certainly for the parents … so there’s that fear of the unknown, what is going to happen medically, intellectually with their child. It’s a great time of stress,” Biermann explained. “At the very worst, if their baby is born prematurely, is the baby going to stay alive? And if alive, will the baby have disability? And that’s just a big unknown for a long time.”
Only so many NICUs exist. In some states, parents must drive to hospitals hundreds of miles away, which translates to time and money strains in addition to concern over their baby’s health and survival.
Yet, there are steps parents can take. Major risk factors include already having another baby that was born prematurely, followed by multiple births; uterine and/or cervical abnormalities; high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes in the mother; infections; and smoking and drug use during pregnancy.
“It is a very common problem,” Biermann said. “Unfortunately, these babies can have some serious problems … And there are things that women, that families, can do to improve the health of their pregnancy and ultimately the health of their baby.”
Mothers who are at risk should contact their health care providers – preferably before getting pregnant – to discuss available treatments. Women can space their pregnancies, stop smoking and maintain a healthy weight. Some tests can be useful in identifying women at high risk for premature delivery.
Since 1981, the number of preterm births in the United States has risen steadily. Although rates have fallen slightly in recent years, the number of premature infants in the United States has grown 30 percent between 1981 and 2009.
Each year, the March of Dimes issues an international report card, rating nations according to the prevalence of preterm births. This year, the United States received a “C,” an improvement over last year’s “D.”
“While we have made some progress, less babies are being born preterm, we still have a long way to go,” Biermann said.
The March of Dimes is fighting these dismal statistics on all fronts. Its website and materials, available in both English and Spanish, provide information to families and professionals alike. At the national level, the nonprofit battles in Washington, DC for research funds and new initiatives, advocating for broader access to health care for women and children.
“We know there are some reasons why babies are born prematurely, but we don’t know all the reasons,” Biermann explained. “Therefore, one of the most important things we’ve done has been to fund research. We hope to learn exactly why preterm labor occurs and why babies are born early.”
After dozens of years of research, experts have not discovered how to prevent early delivery. In fact, in almost 40 percent of premature births, the cause was not determined.
Founded in 1938 to fight polio, the March of Dimes was so successful in eradicating the disease that the organization had to switch and tackle a new health crisis: premature infants and birth defects.
“Things weren’t getting better. We weren’t getting enough answers and we just said we think we are in a position to take this on as a major health issue … We have a belief in taking science and translating that into service. We’re going to take on another issue and it was time to take on birth defects,” Biermann said.
The nonprofit adopted a new mission: helping all babies become healthier. Partly due to its work, more preterm babies are living and researchers have discovered new advancements, such as a protein that helps premature infants to breathe. Scientists are currently investigating what genes may increase the risk of preterm delivery.