National group targets state for its high rate of premature babies

With one in 10 babies born premature in the state, the National Governors Association has targeted Connecticut and three other states for extra help in better developing and coordinating policies to reduce the rate of preemies.

The association will help pull together advocates from across the state and provide national experts and technical assistance to tackle the problem, said Carol Stone, supervising epidemiologist in maternal and child health for the state Department of Public Health.

“The idea is we’re going to cast a very wide net. What we are looking for is people who are willing to act, both community participants but also people who head up agencies in their towns who have the freedom to implement policy and system change,” Stone said.

Of the 41,000 babies born each year in Connecticut, about 4,000 are born preterm. The median gestational age for these babies is 35 weeks — about a month earlier than the median 39 weeks for a full-term birth. These babies typically weigh 5.5 pounds compared with the full-term rate of 7.5 pounds.

Connecticut’s rate of preterm births also reflect a stubborn racial and ethnic disparity. The preterm rates are 14 percent among black/African Americans, 12 percent among Latinos and 9.4 percent among whites, Stone said.

“It’s unacceptable to have these disparities,” Stone said. “And none of these rates have changed in the last 10 years.”

Besides Connecticut, the association has targeted Kentucky, Louisiana and Michigan.

“The goal among the four states is to reduce preterm births overall by 8 percent by 2014, and shrink racial and ethnic disparities in preterm births,” Public Health Commissioner Jewel Mullen said.

Premature birth is associated with infant mortality as well as a greater risk of learning disabilities and lifelong hearing and visual problems, Stone said.

Some of the major risk factors for having a premature baby are smoking during pregnancy and having a pre-existing medical condition, such as diabetes or hypertension.

“We want women to be as healthy and ready as they can be for their next pregnancy,” Stone said.