Valley Voices

Fresno County epidemic: Why are our babies dying?

When her premature baby died, Claudia Cervantes of Fresno was left not only with the ache of empty arms, but also a sense of profound guilt.

“I felt guilty for losing my child,” she said. “I often wonder if it was because I did not care for myself. The doctor told me it was normal to lose babies, but his answer still didn’t make feel better.”

She is not alone in her curiosity or her grief. Fresno County is experiencing a preterm birth crisis and epidemic. While the California preterm birth rate is 8.3 percent, Fresno County has a significantly higher rate of 11.1 percent. This translates to approximately one out of every nine babies in Fresno County who are born too early.

But for African American women in Fresno County, the preterm birth rate is nearly double the state average at a staggering 16.5 percent. As we look beneath the surface, we’ve discovered that Asian American, Latina and white women in Fresno all experience preterm birth (before 37 weeks gestation) at rates above the state average.

As the leading cause of infant mortality and morbidity, babies born too soon are often faced with disabilities and serious health complications that last their lifetimes.

The question many are now asking is: Why is there a preterm birth crisis in Fresno County?

My colleagues at Fresno State have found that in Fresno County, preterm birth is often the result of social and economic health factors such as race, poverty and access to care. And if there is a silver lining to this story – it begins here. We can improve the factors related to preterm birth here.

The Fresno County Preterm Birth Initiative’s next step involves creating three working groups whose purpose is to intervene with new programs proven to work elsewhere. These groups are health and education before pregnancy, coordination of care for women and care and support for pregnant women.

In September, I was delighted to hear Dr. Larry Rand, principal investigator of Preterm Birth Initiative California, who spoke in Fresno to highlight issues that surround preterm birth. He spoke about how bringing babies to full term begins long before pregnancy.

The health of women well before pregnancy, along with the social factors that influence health such as poverty, race and access to care play an important role in reducing preterm birth rates.

“I did not want to become attached to this last pregnancy because I had already had two miscarriages and lost two babies,” said Cintia Ortiz, another Fresno County mother. “In the latter pregnancy, I did not care about anything. I did not want to think about it and I tried to live a normal life without thinking I was pregnant. I even went to work during my pregnancy, which I did not do with my other two pregnancies.

“My little Angel was born at 35 weeks, and although he does get sick pretty often, at least he is alive and with us!”

Many mothers who have lived through their own preterm birth experience are now joining us to combat this prematurity epidemic. Through a Moms’ Council, they will guide and lead the work in Fresno County serving as our agents of change. Mothers’ stories are a compelling reason to address this problem as a community.

Amber Daniels got the frightening news of a problem pregnancy from her doctor. “I was 22 weeks pregnant, and he told me I was at risk of losing my baby.” she said. “They kept me in the hospital for two months. My son was born at 36 weeks.

“It was a very difficult time for our family as I already had two other children at home.”

Join us Thursday as the Fresno County Preterm Birth Initiative and First 5 Fresno County commemorates the second annual World Prematurity Day, which is recognized every year on Nov. 17.

The Fresno County initiative is part of a larger, 10-year preterm birth initiative, led by the University of California, San Francisco. Fresno State serves as the backbone organization for the Fresno group, with the comprehensive effort being funded by philanthropists Lynne and Marc Benioff of the Bay Area and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Sandra Flores is the program director for the Fresno County Preterm Birth Collective Impact Initiative. Contact her at 559-228-2126.

Second annual World Prematurity Day Walk

When: Thursday, 5:30-7 p.m.

Where: Lighthouse for Children, 2405 Tulare St., Suite 200 to Fresno City Hall

What: Program includes Fresno City Councilmember Esmeralda Soria and program director Sandra Flores