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Pennsylvania Lowers Premature Birth Rate, But There's Room For Improvement

M. Spencer Green
Angelica Juarez holds her preemie daughter Olivia at Advocate Children's Hospital in Chicago on March 15, 2016.

Pennsylvania was one of only four states that saw a decrease in premature birth rates last year compared to 2015, according the March of Dimes’ annual Premature Birth Report Card.

Last year 9.3 percent of babies in Pennsylvania were born before 37 weeks gestation. In 2015 the rate was 9.4 percent. Nationally the rate increased from 9.6 to 9.8 percent.

What might seem like only a modest improvement is still a positive step, according David Logan, medical director of Obstetrical Services at Allegheny Health Network’s Jefferson Hospital. Logan said he’s “thrilled” with this year’s score.

Logan said preterm birth is a leading cause of death in infants and said lifelong health issues such as cerebral palsy, low IQ and lung disease can all stem from being born early.

“It’s really important for us to do everything we can to try to help moms have a healthy pregnancy and try to make it all the way to full-term,” said Logan.

Nebraska, New Hampshire and Wyoming also improved. The report also showed that Allegheny County’s preterm birth rate dropped from 9.3 percent to 9 percent.

Dr. Hyagriv Simham is UPMC’s executive vice chair of obstetrical services, which serves a large segment of western Pennsylvania. Simham said internal data he plans to publish next year also reflects a drop in patients giving birth early.

“There is no silver bullet,” he said, “[but] depression screening and treatment, and smoking cessation treatment, enhancing prenatal vitamin use, making sure that progesterone treatment is available…those are examples of things that we’ve tried hard to work on.”

However, Dr. Paul Weinbaum, an OBGYN with the Allegheny Health Network, said he hasn’t noticed any significant change in the number of premature births at his practice. But he adds that preterm isn’t necessary the most important metric.

“A lot of us tend to look more at the outcome data. In other words—how did the babies do?” he said. “What are the long-term issues? There’s so many things, you know, that you can look at rather than or in addition to just, ok, what gestational age are you when you’re born.”

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio where she covered a range of issues, including the 2016 Iowa Caucuses.