U.S. premature births hit 15-year low

LOS ANGELES — The rate of premature births dropped slightly in the United States last year, but the country still has a ways to go before reaching the March of Dimes’ goal of only 9.6 percent of babies born prematurely.

Preliminary figures for 2012 show that 11.5 percent of births in the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico occurred before pregnancies reached 37 weeks of gestation. That’s a 15-year low and the sixth consecutive year of decline, according to the March of Dimes.

The nonprofit organization, which focuses on pregnancy and baby health, estimates that about 176,000 fewer babies have been born premature since 2006, when the rate of preterm births peaked at 12.8 percent nationwide. That translates to a savings of roughly $9 billion in health and other costs, the group said.

However, March of Dimes President Jennifer Howse noted in a statement that “the U.S. still has the highest rate of preterm birth of any industrialized country.”

The March of Dimes gave the country a grade of “C” on its “Premature Birth Report Card,” released Friday. However, the U.S. earned stars – indicating that it’s “moving in the right direction” – for three factors that contribute to premature births:

The proportion of women considered to be of childbearing age (that is, between the ages of 15 and 44) who did not have health insurance dropped from 21.9 percent in the years 2009-2011 to 21.3 percent in 2010-2012;

The proportion of women between the ages of 18 and 44 who are former or current smokers dropped from 22.5 percent in 2011 to 20.8 percent in 2012.

The rate of late preterm births – those that occur between 24 weeks and 36 weeks gestation – fell from 8.3 percent in 2011 to 8.1 percent last year.

The report card identified racial disparities in the rates of preterm births, though no group has yet reached the March of Dimes’ 9.6 percent goal. Nationwide, the proportion of babies born early last year was 10.3 percent among Asian Americans, 10.5 percent among whites, 11.7 percent among Latinas, 13.6 percent among Native Americans and 16.8 percent among black Americans.

The report card also found large disparities among the states. At 8.7 percent, Vermont had the lowest rate of premature births last year. The highest was in Mississippi, at 17.1 percent.

Mississippi was one of four jurisdictions to get a failing grade from the March of Dimes (the others were Puerto Rico, Louisiana and Alabama). Vermont was one of six states to get an A (Oregon, Alaska, Maine, New Hampshire and California rounded out that list). The nonprofit also gave out 19 Bs, 18 Cs and 5 Ds.

California – the state responsible for 12 percent of all births in the country – earned stars for reducing the rate of uninsured women from 25.3 percent to 23.8 percent and for reducing the proportion of late preterm births from 7.1 percent to 6.9 percent. But it got dinged because the proportion of women smokers rose from 10.4 percent to 11 percent.

Racial disparities were less pronounced in the Golden State. The preterm birth rate was 8.8 percent for whites, 9.1 percent for Asian Americans, 9.9 percent for Latinas, 11.2 percent for Native Americans and 13.5 percent for black Americans.

The statistics used in the report card were culled from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System and the U.S. Census Bureau.

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