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Premature births at an all-time high in the U.S., March of Dimes report finds

“We can do better,” said one expert in Alabama, a state that’s historically performed poorly in the annual report.
A premature baby in the NICU at the University of Iowa Stead Family Children's Hospital
A premature baby in the NICU at the University of Iowa Stead Family Children's Hospital in Iowa City, Iowa on Aug. 13, 2021.Michael S. Williamson / The Washington Post via Getty Images file
/ Source: TODAY

The number of babies born too early has hit a 15-year high, putting an increasingly large number of infants at risk for physical and intellectual disabilities, the March of Dimes reported this week.

The nonprofit’s latest report finds that more than 1 in 10 babies, or 10.5%, born in the United States in 2021 were delivered at least three weeks before what’s considered full term: 40 weeks of gestation. This marks a 4% increase from 2020.

“This is the highest preterm birth rate that we’ve ever recorded,” said Dr. Zsakeba Henderson, deputy chief medical and health officer for the March of Dimes. March of Dimes began grading states for infant and maternal health in 2007.

People of color or those who live in impoverished areas are most at risk for premature birth.

“Black mothers and American Indian mothers continued to have increases” in preterm births last year, Henderson said. “That gap in disabilities continued to widen in this most recent report.” Women of color, the report found, were 60% more likely than other women to give birth prematurely.

Babies born ahead of 37 weeks gestation are at greater risk of myriad chronic health problems, such as asthma, blindness, deafness and intellectual disabilities.

The nonprofit’s annual report gives the nation a D+ when it comes to preterm births.

Alabama, with a preterm birth rate of 13.1%, is one of the worst ranked states in the country. It and eight other states in the Southeast received failing grades on the report.

“We are failing moms and babies,” said Martha Wingate, director of the Alabama Perinatal Quality Collaborative at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Regardless of who you are, if you are pregnant and deliver a baby in Alabama, you are at higher risk of dying, of your baby dying, period.”

She attributes the disastrous situation for mothers and their newborns, in part, to differences in overall health in Alabama. The state has some of the highest rates of high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes in the country.

One of the problems is that a large swath of Alabama’s population must drive hours to get help in an emergency.

“We have places in the state where women live two to three hours from the closest delivery hospitals,” Wingate said. “Our outcomes shouldn’t look like this. We can do better.” Wingate has been charged with improving the state’s preterm birth rate by improving maternal and fetal health.

Transportation is the “No. 1 barrier” in Arkansas, too, said Dr. Ashley Ross, the chief of neonatology at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock.

“Either they don’t have reliable transportation or they’re just so far away that they don’t have the resources to afford to be able to drive this long distance on a regular basis to be able to access care,” Ross said.

“It’s hard to look at this trend,” he said. “It’s really heartbreaking.”

Other states that received failing grades from the March of Dimes were Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina and West Virginia. All had preterm birth rates of at least 11.5%.

Only Vermont, with a preterm birth rate of less than 8.1%, scored an A on the March of Dimes report card.

This story first appeared on NBCNews.com.

CORRECTION: (Nov. 17, 2022) An earlier version of this story misstated how many babies are born prematurely. It's more than 1 in 10, not 1 in 100.