By Janet McConnaughey
NEW ORLEANS – The March of Dimes has given Louisiana and Mississippi grades of F for high premature birth rates, noting that both states have large numbers of uninsured women and women who smoke.
About one in six babies born in each state last year spent less than 37 weeks in the womb, the organization said Friday in an annual report that grades the percentage of premature births in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
The figure was about 15 percent in Louisiana and 17 percent in Mississippi. Alabama and Puerto Rico got the only other failing grades. Other Southern states got Cs and Ds. The March of Dimes has set a national goal of 9.6 percent and grades states by how far they are from that figure.
Premature birth risks a host of medical problems including heart defects, immature lungs, anemia, damaged bowels, eye disease, problems with sucking, and sleeping and alertness difficulties.
Nobody in the Mississippi State Department of Health was available for comment Friday, said spokeswoman Liz Sharlot.
Louisiana has a long way to go but a campaign that started in November 2010 to reduce the premature birth rate did so by three-tenths of a percentage point from 2011 to 2012, said Kathy Kliebert, secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals.
Louisiana also improved in three areas that contribute to the high rate of premature births: the percentage of women of childbearing age without insurance, the percentage who smoke, and the rate of births in the last weeks of pregnancy, when inductions and cesarean sections may be scheduled.
In both states, about a quarter of all women between 15 and 44 are without any health insurance and about the same percentage smoke. Both statistics are higher in Louisiana than in Mississippi.
The biggest improvement in either state was Mississippi’s drop of 3.2 percentage points for smokers, to 23 percent. Louisiana’s rate dropped more than 1 percentage point to 25 percent.
Louisiana also requires the private networks providing Medicaid care in the New Orleans area to identify women at high risk of a premature birth and keep a close eye on their pregnancies, Kliebert said.
“We’re looking at Medicaid policies in the rest of the state to see if we can do things differently, to replicate the successes we’ve seen” in the New Orleans area, she said.
Big improvements won’t come fast, she said. “But we believe we’re headed in the right direction on those key indicators.”