Babies, stay put!

November is Premature Birth Awareness Month at the March of Dimes, part of an effort to bring down the appalling rate of premature birth in this country, where every minute a baby is born before its time — one in every eight babies born — for a total of 543,000 every year. That's almost 1,500 premature babies born every day, 13 of whom die from complications.

Premature birth — any one that takes place before 37 completed weeks of pregnancy — is the leading cause of infant mortality throughout the world. Babies even a few weeks premature can have health problems that will stay with them for their lifetimes.

In the United States, the rate of premature birth has risen 30 percent in the past 30 years. However, after peaking in 2006, the rate has begun to come down. The March of Dimes thinks its campaign, begun in 2003, had a hand in the decrease.

Premature babies can cost 10 times more to care for than babies born after 37 weeks — $32,325, compared with  $3,325 for full-term infants. The total cost of preterm birth in the United States is $26 million, according to the March of Dimes.

The organization hopes to bring premature births down with increased education for moms and health-care providers, prenatal care and research through its Prematurity Research Initiative.

On Wednesday, Nov. 17, the 8th Annual Premature Birth Awareness Day, the Empire State Building in New York will shine purple, the color assigned to this effort by the March of Dimes.

Keeping track of maternal mortality

From the issue of The Lancet published today:

There is little hope of obtaining precise estimates of maternal mortality rates, as we do for under-5 mortality, for instance. The sources of data are heterogeneous, data quality varies substantially, and the issue of death after induced abortion remains important in countries where it is illegal. It seems a better strategy to separate estimates of obstetric deaths for countries with vital registration, and pregnancy-related deaths for countries that rely on surveys, to increase internal consistency and produce more reliable trends.

Maternal deaths and pregnancy-related deaths are not necessarily the same thing, the article states. A maternal death is one that "could have been prevented by proper antenatal and obstetric care," while a pregnancy-related death "can include infectious, non-communicable, and external causes."

The article's authors, Michel Garenne and Robert McCaa, also say that "one could note a decline in maternal deaths despite an increase in pregnancy-related deaths when confounding with other causes is very strong, as is the case in countries with increasing death rates from HIV, tuberculosis, accidents, and violence."

I would say two things about this article's thesis. First, in a country ravaged by HIV/AIDS and war, some women who are stricken with illness or murdered will be pregnant, but how those deaths are pregnancy-related is a mystery to me. A pregnancy-related death to me would be a woman murdered by her husband for being pregnant, or a woman whose pregnancy contributed to her death from swine flu, for example.

Second, just as a note, it's pretty grandiose to say that "proper antenatal and obstetric care" can head off every true pregnancy-related disaster, like amniotic fluid embolism, for example. Sometimes, in spite of the best efforts, women die.

Oh, well, the authors' point is a good one: Precise estimates of maternal mortality are hard to come by.

$1.5 billion from the Gates Foundation

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation this month committed $1.5 billion over the next five years to support programs that will work to improve maternal and child health, family planning and nutrition in developing countries.

Bill and Melinda Gates

Melinda Gates announced the  plan on Monday at Women Deliver 2010, a gathering of world experts, advocates and policy makers in Washington D.C.

“In poor countries, pregnancy and childbirth often end in tragedy. Our goal must be to build a world where every birth brings joy and hope for the future,” Gates said.

Gates said that the money will be used to support local efforts toward a comprehensive approach to health that will include family planning, prenatal care, nutrition and improving the conditions under which women give birth.

“Every year, millions of newborns die within a matter of days or weeks, and hundreds of thousands of women die in childbirth,” said Gates. “The death toll is so huge, and has persisted for so long, it’s easy to think we’re powerless to do much about it. The truth is, we can prevent most of these deaths – and at a stunningly low cost – if we take action now.”

Gates said, “Most maternal and newborn deaths can be prevented with existing, low-cost solutions – such as basic prenatal care, or educating mothers about the importance of keeping babies warm,” said Gates. “Countries that have made women’s and children’s health a priority – and have invested in proven solutions – are achieving amazing results.”

Researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington say that maternal mortality has fallen more than 35 percent since 1980, from more than 500,000 maternal deaths to about 343,000 in 2008, according to a press release from the Gates foundation.

Deaths among children younger than 5 are also down dramatically. About 7.7 million children are expected to die this year, down from 11.9 million in 1990, and 16 million in 1970, the release stated.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the world's largest philanthropic entities, is a "family foundation driven by the interests and passions of the Gates family," according to its stated principles. The foundation seeks to impact a number of major global issues, including health and education.

Bill Gates, founder of the Microsoft computer software giant, co-chairs the foundation with Melinda Gates and his father, William H. Gates Sr.

Photo by Kjetil Ree / www.commons.wikimedia.org

The Frontier Nursing Service

Mary Breckinridge, a daughter of a prominent Kentucky family that included John C. Breckinridge, James Buchanan’s vice president, suffered the loss of both her children before they reached the age of 5. Instead of allowing these tragedies to ruin her life, she channeled her energy into a passionate campaign to improve the health of the children of Appalachia.

Mary Breckinridge

Mary Breckinridge at work

To Breckinridge, a healthy child required a safe birth, a living mother and a healthy family. Making childbirth safe was a primary goal when, in 1925, she founded the Frontier Nursing Service in Leslie County, Ky. The previous year, Breckinridge, 43 and already a nurse, had traveled to England to learn midwifery because she could find no adequate course in the United States. She continued to send FNS nurses to England until the outbreak of World War II.

The FNS deployed the first nurse-midwives to practice in the United States. Breckinridge had encountered nurse-midwives in Europe, and thought that the model was well suited not only for delivering babies but also for providing prenatal care and for assessing and helping to plan for the health needs of the whole family and, indeed, the whole community.

FNS nurses traveled by horseback to attend home births; high-risk patients went to the FNS hospital in Hyden, Ky. Clinics in the community served an average of 250 families. The FNS maternal mortality rate for its first 30 years was about one quarter of the rate for the United States as a whole.

Breckinridge died in 1965. The Frontier Nursing Service, based in Wendover, Ky., is still active, as its midwifery school, which was added in 1939.