Shelly McDermott was five months into her first pregnancy when she started feeling pain in her lower back. She and her husband, Andrew, went to the doctor to find out what was wrong. The next day doctors performed an emergency cesarean section.
Their son, Jack, “was born four months early and he was a pound and a half,” Andrew McDermott said. “He was about the size of my hand and he was as red as a tomato.”
Premature birth is the leading cause of infant death, and preterm birth rates are on the rise in California, reflecting a nationwide trend, according to the 2017 Premature Birth Report Card released Wednesday by March of Dimes, a foundation focused on preventing birth defects and infant mortality.
In 2016, California’s preterm birth rate was 8.6 percent, an increase from 2015 and a six-year high. Prior to 2015, preterm birth rates had been declining for nearly a decade.
California received a “B” on the report card for being near the March of Dimes goal of 8.1 percent. Sacramento County also earned a “B” for having preterm birth rate of 8.3 percent, an improvement from last year.
The cause of premature births is often unknown or unclear, said Maura Georges, Maternal Child Health Program Director for March of Dimes in California. But the data and ways to prevent it are being studied by researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and March of Dimes so at-risk populations can be identified and treated.
Data show that minorities are at higher risk for not carrying a pregnancy to term. In California, African American women have the highest rate of preterm births at 11.8 percent, which is 46 percent higher than the rate among all other women. In Sacramento County, American Indian women have the highest rate at 12.6 percent.
“Race and ethnic groups face different inequities in health care access, housing, jobs, neighborhood safety and food security,” Georges said. “The factors can modify how genes in your body are expressed and these differences can affect pregnancy length.”
Babies who survive premature birth often struggle with lifelong health problems. Preemies are at risk for breathing problems, vision loss, cerebral palsy and intellectual delays.
Jack had to remain in the neonatal intensive care unit for five months at Kaiser Permanente Roseville Hospital, where he received more than 20 blood transfusions and several surgeries to keep him alive, McDermott said.
The McDermotts were finally able to bring their son home in time for Thanksgiving six years ago.
Jack is now in first grade and has lots of energy. He’s had more surgeries since leaving the hospital to correct his eyesight. He is also very sensitive to noise and he has to wear a special kind of shoes so he doesn’t walk only on his toes.
“He’s been in endless amounts of therapy for a long time. He’ll likely need more therapy for the rest of his life,” McDermott said.
The goal is to implement strategies that are proven to prevent premature birth, Georges said, such as increasing use of progesterone for women with a history of prior preterm birth, reducing tobacco use among pregnant women, encouraging women to not get pregnant again until at least 18 months after giving birth, increasing use of low-dose aspirin to prevent preeclampsia and increasing access to prenatal care.
These strategies will play a part in achieving March of Dimes’ goal to reduce the preterm birth rate to 8.1 percent by 2020 and 5.5 percent by 2030, Georges said.