Giving birth is a miraculous moment for mothers, yet it can also be one of the most terrifying and treacherous for both mother and child. I’ll never forget the excitement of the birth of my brother’s first child, and then the breath holding trepidation while he stayed at the hospital in the NICU for the following week having being born prematurely. Premature babies can have serious health problems at birth and later into life, and about 1 in 10 babies in the US are born prematurely. The World Health Organization lists preterm birth complications as the number 1 cause of death in children under the age of five. You might be shocked to learn that the United States of America is ranked 54th on Born Too Soon the list of Estimated National Rates of Preterm Birth put out by The March of Dimes. Our country has one of the worst newborn mortality rates of any of the industrialized nations and a higher pre-term birth rate than countries like Sierra Leone, Libya or Cambodia.
The March of Dimes , an organization that has been around for nearly 80 years, is set to change that. I was struck by how little I knew about all of the amazing programs that it supports both here in the US and abroad. Over the past couple of years I have traveled to Ethiopia and South Africa on reporting trips on maternal and newborn health, and written for a number of global non-profits on related issues, My focus on maternal, newborn and child health has been primarily focused on developing countries. As a mother of four children and daughter of a Polio survivor I also advocate for global vaccines with the United Nations Shot@Life campaign, one of the major goals of which is global Polio eradication. I was fascinated to find out that the March of Dimes had led the fight against Polio when it was founded by FDR in 1938 with the purpose of Polio eradication in the US. The Polio vaccine was developed with funding by the March of Dimes and now there are currently only two countries left in the world that still have Polio, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Polio virus was successfully eradicated in the US in 1979 thanks in large part to the March of Dimes campaign.
Once that goal was accomplished the robust infrastructure of the March of Dimes was shifted to tackle birth defects, and in the mid 1980s to Community, Advocacy, Research, Education and Support services around premature birth. (the birth of an infant before 37 weeks of pregnancy). If not for the research, programs and services provided by the March of Dimes many babies would never make it past that critical first 24 hour window after birth. Families would be deprived of the guiding services and support that helps them through a frightening time period while their newborn is fighting for their little life.
Healthy Babies are Worth the Wait® is a comprehensive initiative by the March of Dimes to prevent preventable preterm birth, with a focus on reducing elective deliveries before 39 weeks gestation. Healthy Babies are Worth the Wait involves an education and awareness campaign, hospital quality improvement and community intervention programs. These strategies are focused on interventions and activities that have the potential to make an immediate, substantial and measurable impact on preterm birth. – www.marchofdimes.org
The Share Your Story website provides a lifeline to NICU families in an online community, which is an extension of the amazing support services provided by the March of Dimes in the NICU itself. I was able to take a tour of the Women & Infants Hospital NICU in Rhode Island where the March of Dimes is saving newborn lives every day. The 6-year-old 50,000 sq. foot wing here in Rhode Island can treat 82 babies at a time, and in the corner of the wing an entire center for family support provides programs, food, and a fun-filled space for siblings to play.
Research as to what contributes to premature birth has identified certain risk factors such as multiples, previous preterm births, little or no prenatal care, being overweight or underweight during pregnancy, smoking, drinking alcohol, and drug use, to name a few. Demographics can also play a role, if you are under 17 or over 35 these are risk factors, and here in the US researchers are working hard to find out why various populations have a higher preterm birth rate than others. Continued research also seeks to answer the question of why preterm birth can also sometimes occur in a healthy mother with none of the predisposing factors, like my sister-in-law so many years ago. My nephew is now a thriving healthy twenty year old, and it is easy to forget those first touch and go weeks of his life when he had been born too soon.
It is estimated that 75% of preterm births could be prevented with proper intervention. The research, education, and advocacy that the March of Dimes provides could save the state of Rhode Island up to $57 million dollars by preventing premature birth in our state, but the March of Dimes could use your help to achieve that ultimate goal. Families and premature babies need your help as well.