ATLANTA — A ‘‘C’’ grade sounds pretty average, at best.
But Georgia’s ‘‘C’’ on a newly released report card on premature births represents significant improvement on a statistic that can be a matter of life and death.
Georgia lowered its preterm birth rate to 12.7 percent from 13.2 percent, according to the March of Dimes 2013 Premature Birth Report Card.
The ‘‘C’’ is the highest grade given to Georgia in the six years of March of Dimes report cards.
Georgia is part of a national trend toward improved preterm birth rates. Between 2011 and 2012, 31 states saw improvement. The nation as a whole scored a “C” grade on this year’s report card, which reflects 2012 data.
Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, commissioner of the state Department of Public Health, told GHN that Georgia’s progress on preterm births “is very exciting.” She added that the agency’s own updated statistics for 2012 show an even lower rate for the state – 10.9 percent.
Three Southeastern states — Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana — each received an “F’’ on the report card. Alaska, California, Oregon, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine earned “A’’ grades.
“We’re proud of Georgia’s better grade on the report card,’’ said Sheila Ryan, state director of the Georgia chapter of the March of Dimes. “But we will continue to work to give all babies a healthy start in life because too many still are born too soon, before their lungs, brains or other organs are fully developed.”
With 1 in 9 babies born too soon, the U.S. rate of preterm births is still higher than that of most developed nations, the report noted.
Fitzgerald said that the state’s focus on reducing infant mortality has helped lower the premature birth rate, which is a leading cause of those deaths.
Public Health officials have targeted areas where infant mortality and preterm births are high, including Columbus, Savannah, Macon, Augusta and Valdosta, she said.
A program that expands prenatal care in Albany has helped reduce the preterm rate there, Fitzgerald added.
But the challenge of preterm births remains great, she noted.
Forty counties in Georgia have no obstetrics services, and another 19 have an OB deficit, according to Public Health. State officials are focusing on the health of mothers before pregnancy and the spacing of pregnancies among moms who have already had a preterm birth, Fitzgerald said.
The March of Dimes on Friday credited the Department of Public Health for its efforts on lowering preterm births.
“Dr. Fitzgerald is really committed to the health of mothers and children,’’ said Leigh Tenewitz of the Georgia chapter of the March of Dimes.
Preterm births — those before 37 completed weeks of pregnancy — cost the U.S. more than $26 billion annually, according to the Institute of Medicine. And preterm birth is the leading cause of newborn death.
Babies who survive an early birth often face the risk of lifelong health challenges, such as breathing problems, cerebral palsy and mental retardation.
The causes of preterm births are not understood in all cases. But the known risk factors include a lack of prenatal care, as well as alcohol consumption, drug use and smoking by pregnant women.
Another factor is the high number of early Caesarean-section deliveries that are not medically necessary.
The Georgia Hospital Association, Tenewitz said, aided in the preterm improvement by working with hospitals to reduce the number of early elective deliveries, which are medically unnecessary inductions and C-sections scheduled before 39 weeks of pregnancy.
The March of Dimes also recognized Georgia for reducing the percentage of uninsured women of childbearing age; lowering the late preterm birth rate; and reducing the percentage of women of childbearing age who smoke.
More work on reducing women’s rate of smoking will continue to improve Georgia’s statistics, said Merrilee Gober, president of the board of Healthy Mothers Healthy Babies Coalition of Georgia.
Smoking during pregnancy accounts for 20 percent to 30 percent of low birthweight babies, up to 14 percent of preterm deliveries, and about 10 percent of all infant deaths, Gober said Friday. She added that her organization supports a higher tobacco tax as a way to discourage young people from smoking.
The March of Dimes grades are based on comparing each state’s and the nation’s 2012 preliminary preterm birth rates with the March of Dimes 2020 goal of 9.6 percent of all live births. The U.S. preterm birth rate is 11.5 percent, a decline of 10 percent from the peak of 12.8 percent in 2006.