Health Care

Florida gets D grade for preterm births

Roberto Castro and Carla Curiel with their twin daughters, Adriana and Emilia.
Roberto Castro and Carla Curiel with their twin daughters, Adriana and Emilia. Handout

The day after her baby shower in the Dominican Republic, Carla Curiel experienced a pair of painful contractions.

She was about to give birth to twins — less than six months into her pregnancy.

Curiel had emergency surgery to close her cervix and then traveled by air ambulance to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. Her babies were born seven weeks later, weighing less than three pounds each.

Preemies are commonplace in Florida. About 13.6 percent of babies in Florida are born premature, according to a new report from the March of Dimes.

Florida’s preterm birth rate — well above the national average of 11.4 percent — earned the state a “D” on the organization’s annual Premature Birth Report Card. Only South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama fared worse.

Dr. Karen Harris, of the March of Dimes Florida chapter, said she was “disappointed that we haven’t seen sustained improvement in our preterm birth rate.”

But she expects to see better rates in Florida in the coming years. “The programs and partnerships we have put in place provide the necessary framework for the future of newborn health,” she said.

The goal: 9.6 percent, according to the report.

Premature babies are born before 37 weeks, when the brain, heart and other vital organs are still developing. They run a higher risk of developing respiratory distress syndrome than babies who are born after full-term pregnancies, and are likely to develop cerebral palsy and other intellectual disabilities.

“There is no better incubator than the mom,” said Dr. Jorge E. Perez, who oversees the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at South Miami Hospital.

Perez said Florida’s premature birth rate remains high because of the large population of uninsured women. About 1.5 million women in Florida lack health insurance, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

The Republican-dominated Legislature has repeatedly refused to accept federal Medicaid expansion dollars that could provide insurance to about one million poor Floridians.

Perez noted that Florida’s preterm birth rate was down slightly from 2012, and that the percentage of expectant mothers who smoke during their pregnancies had also dropped.

“We’re headed in the right direction,” he said. “But we still have a long way to go.”

To help reduce the number of preterm births, March of Dimes is encouraging all labor and delivery hospitals to end early and elective deliveries before 39 weeks of pregnancy.

Perez, the Miami neonatologist, said most major hospitals in Florida were on board.

Doctors are also working to educate women about risk factors that could lead to premature births, including smoking, substance abuse and waiting less than 18 months between pregnancies.

Curiel’s daughters were born early not because she smoked or lacked access to healthcare. Curiel had a previously undiagnosed condition that made her cervix too weak to hold the babies.

Still, Adriana and Emilia experienced no distress inside the womb, and were able to breathe on their own when they were born.

“The residents were all saying it was a miracle,” Curiel said.

The girls are now vivacious toddlers. Their mother described them as “fine, healthy and beautiful.”

“I want people to know that there is so much they can to do to make sure the baby is healthy,” she said. “There is hope.”

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