Some premature births occur for unknown reasons and simply can't be prevented. But a great many others probably can and should be, says a statement released today by the March of Dimes. The agency has launched a petition calling for more attention to the growing problem of premature birth in the United States. Tops on the organization's list is to ask doctors and hospitals to stop inducing labor in healthy women and delivering their babies before 39 weeks of gestation.
The United States has among the highest rates of infant mortality and premature birth of all industrialized countries. Figures reported Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that infant deaths have declined slightly since 2006 but remain unacceptably high considering what the United States spends on healthcare. More than 28,000 U.S. infants under age 1 die each year. Premature births now account for a stunning 12.7% of all births and are a major contributor to the death rate.
In recent years, statistics show, many premature births are so-called "late preterm births" that occur after 36 weeks of pregnancy. A growing number of health experts say part of this trend is due to women who have their labor induced at 38 or 39 weeks gestation and delivery by planned cesarean section for reasons of convenience.
"Some doctors and patients may be scheduling inductions or C-section deliveries without having accurately assessed the gestational age of the baby," says Dr. Roger C. Young, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Vermont and a member of the MOD Board of Trustees. "This is a problem because babies born just a few weeks early are at greater risk of serious problems such as delayed brain development, sudden infant death, jaundice, re-hospitalization, and feeding problems."
Beginning today, the March of Dimes is collecting signatures via an electronic petition. The four-point petition calls for:
- Hospital leaders should review all cesarean section births and inductions of labor that occur before 39 weeks gestation. The review should ensure that all C-sections and labor inductions meet established American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists guidelines regarding medical necessity of elective procedures.
- Expanded federal support for research to uncover the causes of premature birth, which can lead to strategies for prevention, improved care and improved outcomes.
- Expanded access to health coverage for women of childbearing age and support for smoking cessation programs as part of maternity care.
- Businesses should create workplaces that support maternal and infant health, such as private areas to pump breast milk, access to flextime and information for employees about having a healthy pregnancy and childbirth.
-- Shari Roan
Photo credit: Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times