By Mayor Tom Barrett
The City of Milwaukee Health Department held its 2nd Annual Infant Mortality Summit on May 11 at the Intercontinental Hotel. The event focused on reducing prematurity, the leading cause of infant death. Dr. Janice Whitty, a prominent physician at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee gave the keynote speech and provided Milwaukee’s physicians and other healthcare workers with cutting-edge medical interventions to reduce prematurity in our city.
In Milwaukee, nearly 80 percent of the babies who die before their first birthday are born prematurely, and 70 percent of these babies are African American. This racial disparity is deeply troubling and is not necessarily tied to economic status – a college educated African American woman is more likely to have a premature baby than a white woman who has dropped out of high-school.
Prematurity is a serious problem and we are concerned about all the babies who are born early, not just those who pass away. Premature babies who survive may face a lifetime of serious health problems.
When a baby is born too soon, their brain, lungs, heart, kidneys, and liver may not be developed enough to function well outside the mother’s womb. Early on, the babies might have unstable temperatures, vision and hearing problems, periods of not breathing, jaundice, feeding issues, and seizures. There may be many hospitalizations for frequent colds, ear infections, and bronchitis or pneumonia.
As the child grows up they may face problems in school. Their motor skills may be compromised. They may have problems speaking, writing, doing math, and participating in physical education classes. They are also more likely to have behavior issues such a attention deficit disorder or hyperactivity, heightened anxiety and depression.
When they become adults, they may continue to have problems with employment, or even living independently. Diabetes and heart disease are also seen more often in adults who were born premature.
Sometimes there does not seem to be anything that the mother or her doctor could have done differently to prevent the premature birth. It just happens, for reasons we don’t fully understand. But, there are some steps we can take that absolutely reduce the risk. Milwaukee’s prematurity summit worked to educate healthcare providers about what they can do to better prevent premature birth. But what steps can individuals and community members take?
- Make lifestyle changes: Being as healthy as possible BEFORE getting pregnant is important. Exercise, good nutrition, and taking a multivitamin are good ideas for any woman of child-bearing age. Women who have high blood pressure or diabetes should make sure their disease is under control before becoming pregnant, and follow their healthcare provider’s care plan carefully.
- Stop smoking: Smoking, and being exposed to second- hand smoke is one of the most significant contributors to prematurity. Women who may become pregnant should avoid smoking, and once pregnant ask friends and family to stop smoking around them, as well. Even outside, exposure to second hand smoke is dangerous.
- Get checked for sexually transmitted diseases: We know that sexually transmitted disease and urinary tract infections can lead to a premature birth. If there is any chance of an infection, women and their partners should get tested. Those diagnosed with an infection need to take all of their medication, and get tested again to make sure that they are cured.
- Know your reproductive history: If a woman has had a premature birth, miscarriage, or stillbirth in the past, she is at very high risk for having this happen again. These women should ensure that they tell their healthcare provider about their medical history, so that the doctor can watch this pregnancy more carefully.
Finally, let’s all take special care of the pregnant women in our community. Researchers have shown that high stress levels can trigger preterm birth. We should all do everything we can to assist and care for pregnant women, whether it is calling to check in, or giving someone a ride to the doctor. Prematurity is a serious problem, and we all have a role to play. Individuals, families, neighbors, communities, doctors, and political leaders can all do their part to ensure every baby has a healthy start to life.