Premature birth is the leading cause of death in the world for newborns and young children. Across the globe, more than a million children younger than 5 died due to complications of prematurity in 2014. In the United States we are fortunate to have advanced newborn care resources compared to other areas of the world. These tools prevent high death rates, but we are still left with many children who have lifelong disabilities. With one in nine babies born prematurely in the U.S. and 2,500 in Idaho, it is a problem that touches many families.
The March of Dimes has been leading the fight for the health of babies and children since it was created to lead the fight against polio. During the 1980s, 1990s and even into today, the efforts of the March of Dimes have given us our remarkable ability to improve the survival and health of babies who are born prematurely. Their efforts include funding and promoting research, professional education and public health awareness. These tools and medications are employed daily in our Neonatal Intensive Care Units here in Idaho, and without them we would have much higher death rates among our newborns. Despite these tools, preterm birth still threatens the well-being and quality of life for survivors and their families. These hardships include ongoing health problems, decreased school performance and financial struggles due to the high cost of treatment.
Treating premature babies has made much greater progress than prevention of premature birth. For a frame of reference, a full-term pregnancy is 40 completed weeks. A baby born at 28 weeks in the 1950s had less than a 10 percent chance of survival; today that baby has greater than a 95 percent chance, keeping in mind the high number of lifelong problems that might complicate life for these children and their families.
This type of progress has made us forget that early birth has risks. It is not uncommon for a family to forget about these risks as the discomforts and stresses of the last month of pregnancy lead to hoping for an early delivery. Although the complications decrease as the pregnancy progresses, it is not until 39 to 40 weeks that these risks are at the lowest, and it is not until then that any elective move to deliver should be considered.
Since going as close to the due date makes for the healthiest babies, the March of Dimes has been working to decrease the preterm birth rates for over the last decade. Efforts include public education about the risks of premature birth, improving maternal health and professional education to our doctors across the United States. They have promoted that “healthy babies are worth the wait,” encouraging families to go as close to their due date as possible. Finally, the March of Dimes has funded research to look for the causes that will ultimately lead to the prevention of premature births. We will never completely eliminate premature births, but decreasing them to those that are absolutely necessary will lead to many more healthy children.
Please support the March of Dimes and the work that is done to provide us with the healthiest babies and families. Join the March for Babies Walk on Saturday at Julia Davis Park. To learn more and join the walk, please go to marchforbabies.org or call 800-336-5421.
Stacy T. Seyb, M.D., is board certified in obstetrics and gynecology and maternal fetal medicine.