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Despite Some Improvements, Higher-Than-Average Preterm Birth Rates Persist In Valley


The non-profit health advocacy group March of Dimes has released its annual preterm birth report card, and once again, San Joaquin Valley counties ranked among the worst in the state.

Throughout California, just shy of 9 percent of babies are preterm. That means they’re born before 37 weeks of gestation, which can put them at higher risk of long-term health complications and even death. Although Fresno County’s preterm birth rate improved in the last year, it still fares worse than the state as a whole with 9.1 percent of babies born preterm. Meanwhile, Kern County’s preterm birth rate worsened to nearly 10 percent.

All of these rates are actually better than the national average, but regional director Shantay Davies-Balch says the rates themselves are not the full story. “Overall, California is not doing bad,” she says, but “the crisis is in the racial and ethnic disparities.”

In Fresno in 2016, black babies were more than 75 percent more likely to be preterm than white babies, and Native American babies fared even worse—disparities that are wider here than what’s reported on a national scale. “Although we have made some improvements and it appears that some of our efforts in Fresno County are working, we need to continue those efforts,” Davis-Balch says. “We also need to continue to be vigilant about being systematic and intentional about decreasing the disparity.”

As for why such disparities exist, health experts are zeroing in on social determinants of health like access to prenatal care and poverty, which can vary by demographic group and are associated with other indicators like access to healthy foods, discrimination and differential treatment, and chronic stress. “It’s not the poverty in and of itself, it’s the conditions around the poverty that contribute to preterm birth,” says Davies-Balch.

For years, health organizations including March of Dimes, First Five Fresno, and the county have been studying preterm birth in Fresno and offering preventive programs like group prenatal classes for expectant mothers in vulnerable populations. A UC San Francisco-funded multi-year study in Fresno of strategies to prevent preterm birth was cancelled suddenly earlier this year, though a separate study recently debuted through Fresno State’s Central Valley Health Policy Institute.

A coalition of many of these organizations, including the March of Dimes and UCSF, will soon be launching a program known as Best Babies Zone to promote maternal health and prevent preterm birth in predominantly black neighborhoods in Southwest Fresno.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.
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