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Report: Premature birth rate rises in N.M., nation

November 2, 2016 GMT

The rate of babies born prematurely in New Mexico in 2015 increased from the previous year, according to a report released Tuesday by the March of Dimes Foundation, which for the first time in seven years dropped the state a letter grade in its annual study on preterm birth rates nationwide.

The report says 9.5 percent of babies born in New Mexico in 2015 were born prematurely. That puts the state just below the national average, which increased a tenth of a percentage point in 2015 to 9.6 percent.

“The health of babies in the United States has taken a step backward,” the foundation said in its report, “as the nation’s preterm birth rate worsened for the first time in eight years.”

The March of Dimes lowered New Mexico’s grade on its preterm birth score card from a B in 2014, when the state’s rate was 9.2 percent, to a C for 2015. Twenty other states and the District of Columbia received a C, along with the nation as a whole. Santa Fe County, with a preterm birth rate of 8.8 percent in 2015, received a B, while Doña Ana and San Juan counties both got an A.

New Mexico was one of seven states where preterm birth rates increased in 2015 from the previous year, according to the report.

The March of Dimes Foundation, a White Plains, N.Y.-based charity founded by former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, has been releasing an annual report on preterm births for nine years. The organization’s mission is to end premature birth, which it defines as a birth occurring before 37 weeks of pregnancy. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, preterm birth is the greatest contributor to infant death.

“Preterm birth is also a leading cause of long-term neurological disabilities in children,” according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Emma Gamelsky, maternal and child health director for the March of Dimes in Albuquerque, said heightened rates of diabetes, obesity and teen pregnancy, as well as drug and alcohol use, might factor into New Mexico’s preterm birth rate. Food deserts in the state also make it difficult for women to maintain healthy diets, she said, and she cited a shortage of OB-GYNs, particularly in rural areas.

“They have to travel three hours just to see a doctor for a prenatal checkup,” Gamelsky said of mothers in rural areas of the state that are short on providers.

Gamelsky said there are still questions about what causes preterm birth, but higher levels of stress, poor diets, lack of access to health care, smoking before and during pregnancy, and drug and alcohol use appear to heighten the risks.

The March of Dimes compiled data from birth rate files held by the National Center for Health Statistics, a branch of the Centers for Disease Control. But its preterm birth statistics are lower than those maintained by the CDC because it uses different measures.

The March of Dimes uses ultrasound data to measure a fetus’ age, Gamelsky said, while the CDC uses a less accurate method — the date of a mother’s last menstrual period. The CDC considers a birth preterm at 32 weeks, while the foundation uses the 37-week mark.

The normal gestation period for a baby is 40 weeks.

The March of Dimes ranked New Mexico 30th among all states in its preterm birth report for racial and ethnic disparities. Black women in the state had a 42 percent higher rate of preterm births than other women, with 13.1 percent of babies born prematurely last year.

Women in New Mexico identifying as Asian or Pacific Islander had a 10.2 percent preterm birth rate, according to the report, while Hispanic women had a 9.4 percent rate. White women had a 9.1 percent preterm birth rate, while American Indian women in New Mexico had an 8.3 percent rate of preterm births in 2015, according to the report, a rate that has continued to drop.

Gamelsky said in most states, Native American women have among the highest rates of premature birth. But that’s not the case in New Mexico, where Native Americans make up some 11 percent of the population.

Contact Justin Horwath at 505-986-3017 or jhorwath@sfnewmexican.com.