More babies are being born too early in Alaska, health department says

A baby swaddled in a blanket
In 2019, almost 1 in 10 births in Alaska was preterm. That’s as high as it’s been in the last two decades, according to a bulletin released from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services on March 16, 2021. (Dru Kelly/Creative Commons)

The rate of preterm births is creeping up nationwide and in Alaska. That’s according to a bulletin released Tuesday from the Department of Health and Social Services.

Babies are considered preterm if they’re born more than three weeks before their due date, and preterm birth and low birth weight can cause infant death or developmental problems. In 2019, almost 1 in 10 births in Alaska was preterm. That’s as high as the rate has been in the last two decades.

It’s hard to nail down one cause of early birth, or why numbers are going up — but it can be an indicator of other health problems at play.

“When you look at the data, we’ve also seen increases at the same time of pregnant women with diabetes, hypertension, obesity. Those types of chronic conditions are also going up at the same time. So we suspect that probably could be part of the contribution to the increase,” said Rebekah Morisse, who leads the Women’s, Children’s and Family Health division for the state.

The kind of preterm births that are rising aren’t what are called “spontaneous” births, when a woman goes into labor before her due date. What’s on the rise in Alaska is when doctors decide to initiate a preterm birth, or “inducing labor.”

Doctors can induce early labor if the mother or baby’s health is in jeopardy. Morisse said an important part of preventing preterm births is connecting expectant mothers to prenatal care early in their pregnancy, or even before they get pregnant.

Health officials say poverty is also a significant factor in delaying care and contributing to underlying health issues. All these contributing factors are a bigger issue for expectant mothers in remote areas of Alaska — which means the problem disproportionately affects Alaska Native women.

Pediatrician Matthew Hirschfeld leads Maternal Child Health Services at Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage.

“The way to address big public health issues like this, like preterm birth, which really is an indicator for all sorts of different things that could be happening in families, it really takes everybody in the state to work together to make that happen,” he said.

He’s talking about providers, the public health system, and families. He emphasized the best way to have a healthy birth is to get good prenatal care.

For this latest report, the state analyzed data up until 2019. Hirschfeld said at ANMC he’s seen a small jump in preterm birth in 2020, which he thinks that could be due to stress from the pandemic.

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