To prevent premature infant deaths, try preventing premature infant births

November 13, 2013

By Nicole Angresano,
Vice President of Community Impact, United Way of Greater Milwaukee

“There is no footprint too small that cannot leave an imprint in this world.” ~Author unknown
According to the March of Dimes, each year more than half a million babies are born too soon in the United States. The nation’s premature birth rate has risen by 36 percent over the last 25 years. Premature birth, when a baby is born more than three weeks early, costs us more than $26 billion a year. Even when infants survive prematurity, they are at risk of severe health problems and lifelong disabilities.
Just this week, another baby in Milwaukee died as a result of unsafe sleeping. As a mother, I’m heartbroken for this family. The public concern and grief is justified, but the story is incomplete. Despite our increased awareness of and attention to what are often termed “co-sleeping deaths,” it is premature births that are the cause of most newborn deaths. In Milwaukee, nearly half of the infants that do not reach their first birthday die as a result of prematurity.

African American women bear the highest burden. In 2011, 10.4 percent of live births in Wisconsin were born preterm or less than 37 weeks gestational age. However, rates of preterm birth were 16 percent among births to Black mothers, significantly higher than both state and national averages.
Research indicates that there are multiple risk factors that may lead to premature labor and delivery, including a history of preterm birth, expecting more than one baby, and uterine and/or cervical abnormalities. Other risk factors include: diabetes mellitus, hypertension, inadequate prenatal care, smoking, and alcohol/drug use. The positive news is that many of these factors can be changed, even preventable.
November is Prematurity Awareness Month. You will hear about tremendous local efforts, many being led by the Wisconsin Chapter of the March of Dimes, that are addressing this crisis. In fact, Milwaukee is currently engaged in substantive collaboration to reduce the overall infant mortality rates, rates of prematurity, and, in particular, the disparity between white birth outcomes and those of non-whites.
United Way of Greater Milwaukee is mobilizing its resources—human and financial—to impact this issue, and has made Healthy Birth Outcomes a priority. Our goal is that all of our community’s babies are born ready to thrive.
Within this initiative, we engage in two core strategies: Teen Pregnancy Prevention and Infant Mortality Reduction. Two weeks ago, we were proud to stand with the City of Milwaukee and announce that Milwaukee’s teen birth rates, long among the highest in the nation, had fallen over 50 pecent in 6 years. With similar vigor and breadth, we will address the issue of prematurity and infant mortality. We want every baby born in Milwaukee to blow out that first birthday candle.

*Special thanks to the March of Dimes for providing data and their work on this important community issue.