Preterm Births in US Increase for a Second Year

New government data show the health of pregnant women and babies in the U.S. is getting worse, and a report by the National Center for Health Statistics shows the number of babies born prematurely has been increasing since 2014.

Preterm American births increased in 2016 and 2015 after seven years of steady declines. Prematurity rose by 2 percent in 2016 and by 1.6 percent the year before.

Stacey Stewart, president of the March of Dimes, a nonprofit U.S. group that works to eliminate prematurity and birth defects, called the increase “an alarming indication that the health of pregnant women and babies in our country is heading in the wrong direction.”

Expand health care

Stewart called on Washington to expand access to quality prenatal care and promote proven ways to help reduce the risk of preterm birth. Noting that the U.S. Senate is considering a health care bill that many Americans believe would reduce health benefits for poor families and change coverage for maternity and newborn care, Stewart said now “is not the time to make it harder for women to get the care they need to have healthy pregnancies and healthy babies.”

In the U.S., about 400,000 babies born each year before the 37th week of pregnancy are considered preterm. No one knows all the causes of prematurity, but researchers have discovered that even late-term “preemies” face developmental challenges that full-term babies do not. Several studies show that health problems related to preterm births persist through adult life, problems such as chronic lung disease, developmental handicaps and vision and hearing losses.

African-American rates

Research also shows that African-American women are 48 percent more likely to bear a child prematurely than all other women. And African-American infants born with birth defects are much more likely to face severe outcomes, compared to other U.S. newborns.

African-American women in general are worse off than low-income white women, Stewart said.

“We want to make sure that all babies have access to opportunities to be delivered at full term,” she told VOA, “that mothers have the opportunity to have healthy pregnancies and deliver their babies full term, and we know we must do a much better job in African-American and Hispanic communities and in other communities of color,” to make sure that solutions are available.

The report from the National Center for Health Statistics, which is part of the government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shows that preterm rates rose in 17 of the 50 U.S. states, and that none reported a decline.

The incidence of low birth weight, a risk factor for some serious health problems, also rose for a second straight year in 2016. Again, rates of low birth weight babies were higher for African-Americans than for other racial groups.