Cleveland ranks worst in the nation for premature birth rates

CLEVELAND -

Prematurity Awareness Month kicks off with bad news for Cleveland: the city ranks number one in the country when it comes to babies who are born premature.

Overall, the March of Dimes gives the nation a "C" grade, while Cleveland falls well below with an "F." The question is, why? And what's being done about it?  

“I was scared,” recalled first-time mom Briana Safo. “Nervous. Why me?”  

Safo wasn't supposed to give birth until the end of this month.  

“Aubré was like, 'hey, I want to be a part of the world a little early,'” said dad Derryo Pearl.  

Safo went into labor on August 12th. Her baby boy, Aubré, weighed barely more than a pound.

“The only time I get sad is when I see other kids going home and I'll be like, 'well, why can't my baby go home,'” she said. “When I go home at night, I want to sleep with my baby. I don't want to see my baby connected to tubes, you know, in pain.”  

Aubré is one of dozens of babies in the NICU right now at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital.

“I'm not surprised by the results, because we've been very busy lately, as have many of the NICU's in the city,” said Dr. Jonathan Fanaroff, the NICU’s co-medical director. 

In fact, they are at capacity. Aubré’s story is one that is repeated over and over in Cleveland.

The March of Dimes annual report card found our city has a premature birth rate of 14.9 percent. That is higher than anywhere else in the country.  

“We're disappointed,” noted Dr. Fanaroff. “We, actually, we've been aware of this problem for several years and we are working with the community and with state agencies and local agencies really to try and combat prematurity, which is a major cause of health problems in this country.” 

New parents Safo and Pearl say the problem is alarming.  

“We have a conversation about that, like what is going on,” Pearl explained. “Is it in the water?”

“A lot of people that's pregnant now, they're having their baby months early,” added Safo. “You know, babies in intensive care. So I really want to know personally, why is everybody having their babies early?”  

Doctor Fanaroff thinks one of the main drivers is Cleveland's "challenging economy."  

“There's a sort of complex number of factors that cause prematurity, which is why it's such a difficult issue,” he said. “Certainly, we know that there are modifiable things, such as smoking. There are other aspects, such as early care, so that we can detect problems early and treat complications such as diabetes and high blood pressure, and then there's aspects that clearly contribute that are much harder to deal with, such as racial disparities in care, socioeconomic factors, access to care and insurance issues.” 

Besides location, there is also racial disparity when it comes to premature births. Across the United States, the March of Dimes says black women are 49 percent more likely to deliver preterm than white women.

According to Dr. Fanaroff, there are multiple programs and efforts going on locally, with hospitals working with the community and local agencies to hep combat the problem.

“This is what gives me hope, is that we're doing a number of things,” he explained. “We have everything from programs, such as ‘Centering Pregnancy,’ which is group prenatal care for high-risk moms. Trying to, once again, get them as healthy a pregnancy as possible. We're working to decrease the number of elective deliveries of early babies born premature. We're working to try and get medications that can decrease premature delivery and to get those to the moms when they're needed.”

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