Thankfully, not all of us will face cancer. Not every family will have to contend with diabetes. But as families grow, everyone will experience having a baby, be it your own or a relative’s. Which means everyone shares in the excitement and the worry. Because we all know that some things are out of our control when it comes to having healthy babies.
Sadly, in the U.S., roughly 380,000 babies are born too soon each year.
In California, in one week, nearly 10,000 babies are born. Of those born, 839 babies are preterm, 649 are low birthweight. And even closer to home, in 2013, 1 in 10 babies were born preterm in Kern County. The mission of our local March of Dimes chapter is to get that number much lower.
“Unfortunately, in fifty percent of preterm births, we don’t know why it happened,” explained Patricia Marquez, Development Manager, California Central Valley. “If we can get enough funds to get our research team on it, we can find out why.”
And keep it from happening to local families.
Because preterm births don’t just mean small babies. A baby born too soon (before 37 weeks) can face a multitude of problems as a result of poor lung and brain development. Vision problems, hearing problems, breathing problems, developmental disabilities, the list goes on.
It’s one major reason why the March of Dimes has been promoting their “Healthy Babies are Worth the Wait” campaign, which seeks to ensure women and doctors are not delivering babies early by choice.
“That means at least 39 weeks,” Marquez said. “The last couple of weeks [40 is term] is when the final, most important neural developments take place.”
Many moms who chose to be induced or have their babies early because they were uncomfortable or they wanted to make sure family could be there were unaware that they were actually risking their baby’s health.
“Locally, we have four birthing hospitals,” Marquez explained. “And all four have committed to that campaign. They have promised not to do elective inducing before 39 weeks.”
It’s still too early to measure the results of this relatively recent campaign, but with 100 percent of the local hospitals committing to it, it’s easy to assume that in the coming years, we’ll be able to see a dip in those types of defects.
It’s not the only focus for March of Dimes right now. “Since we started being allowed to fortify flour with folic acid, there has been a twenty percent decrease in cases of spina bifida,” said Marquez.
Spina bifida is a neural tube defect (a birth defect of spinal cord and brain) that may be prevented if women consume 400 micrograms of folic acid daily, prior to and in the early weeks of pregnancy.
“Now the focus is getting folic acid fortified in Latino foods, including corn masa flour. The Latino population in Kern is huge and it’s our hardest hit population for premature birth and birth defects. It’s important for us to address that need in the population.”
Less than 10 years ago, knowledge of the importance of folic acid was still lacking.
While 84 percent of women ages 18-45 surveyed in 2008 had heard of folic acid, only 11 percent of these women knew to take folic acid before pregnancy. The same year, only 39 percent of women surveyed reported taking a vitamin containing folic acid daily.
And that percentage has slowly improved, but there’s still lots of work to be done. That’s not something the March of Dimes has ever shied away from, however.
We all know the March of Dimes was founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the start of World War II to stamp out polio. People literally donated dimes.
People didn’t know much about polio at the time (1938), but the scientific committees established by the March of Dimes (though it was then known as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis) to fund virus research found opportunities to assist the war effort by investigating diseases affecting those in uniform. Entering the 1950s, just after the massive polio outbreak in 1949, the 3,100 chapters of the NFIP operated almost completely by volunteers who proved that the March of Dimes was a grassroots movement, captured in their slogan “Join the March of Dimes.”
Most of us know the rest. How Jonas Salk, MD, would find the vaccine, which was put into trial in 1954 with 1.8 million schoolchildren. From this point, polio declined rapidly from tens of thousands of new cases per year to a mere handful; a fearsome disease had been put to rest by the sustained efforts of millions of volunteers, coordinated by the NFIP.
Once polio was in the rearview mirror, the organization turned its sights to birth defects and healthy pregnancies.
Throughout the years, the March of Dimes has been at the forefront of all of the major discoveries and developments regarding healthy births.
“Our research gave hard and fast numbers that people could digest,” Marquez added. Like actually proving scientifically that drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes during pregnancy causes horrible birth defects.
“We are always focused on developing further research centers, which we call transdisciplinary centers because we have so many PhDs and physicians working in different areas and specialties. Unlike other research centers in different industries, March of Dimes researchers are always releasing their findings in case it can help anyone else with their research. We’re doing whatever it takes to find the answer because that’s what’s most important; there’s no competitive nature to our research centers.”
And who funds that research? You.
Locally, our March for Babies annually raises over $100,000. “This year’s March raised just under $160,000,” Marquez exclaimed.
Later this year, on October 27, is the Signature Chefs Auction, an amazingly elegant fundraiser that brings together all our favorite local chefs who prepare incredible bites for the taking.
“One of our auction items is a seven-day stay in a house in Belize! And we also have a five-day stay in a Park City, UT, condo!”
All the funds raised help the March of Dimes keep doing what they’re doing. And today, that means ending preterm birth by 2020. That’s something that everyone can appreciate.
“When talking to groups of people, I like to start by saying, ‘raise your hand if you have a child.’ And most do. Then I say, ‘for those of you not currently with a hand up, do you have a niece or nephew,’ and that gets others. But then I ask, ‘raise your hand if you’ve ever been a baby,’ ” Marquez laughed.
“If you’ve been a baby in the last 60 years, you have been affected by the March of Dimes, through the polio vaccine, the rubella vaccine, newborn health screenings [the heel prick], and more. And people really respond to that fact.”
And who doesn’t want to have a hand in making sure their baby is healthy?
If you’d like more information on the March of Dimes and on this year’s Signature Chefs Auction, visit www.marchofdimes.org or call (661) 369-1181.