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Sunday, January 24, 2021

Columns

Premature baby bill stalled in Congress


Government inefficiency becomes more than merely frustrating when it undermines public health, and it rises to a particular level of indefensibility when the lives of infants are put at risk. An act that will provide continued funding for programs that aim to reduce pre-term birth rates has been stuck in Congressional committee since July, and if prior decision time-frames are a guide, it will be several more months before the bill even reaches the president’s desk. The delay is made even more inexplicable because the act is simply the reauthorization of a recently expired program that was both popular and effective.

In 2006, President Bush signed into law the Prematurity Research Expansion and Education for Mothers who deliver Infants Early (PREEMIE) Act. The original PREEMIE Act granted nearly $65 million to various health organizations and outreach programs — with the goals of advancing prenatal care and preventing premature births. Heralded as at least an incremental success, the funding helped bring down the pre-term rates in the US from an all-time high of 12.8 percent to the present 12.2 percent.

The act was preset to expire on Oct. 1 and needed to be reintroduced to Congress for a vote on its extension. This was done in September 2010, but since then further action has been limited to a standstill.

In all fairness, such sluggishness is far from deliberate; and in this case, at least, no one is accusing lawmakers of being callous or stingy. Recognizably, the sheer volume of bills that are under consideration at any time necessitate some form of prioritization in Congressional proceedings. Nevertheless, mothers and infants deserve better, and with every minute of delay the heart-breaking crisis of pre-term births goes unabated.

Every year in the US, more than 500,000 infants are born prematurely with 5,000 of those dying within the first month of life. The surviving babies typically require weeks, if not months, of intensive care and face a substantially greater risk of developmental disorders and permanent disability.

Medical costs alone are ten times higher for pre-term infants when compared to full-term babies. It is estimated that over $26 billion a year goes towards caring for pre-term infants.

The tragedy is compounded by the fact that over half of these premature births could have been prevented by simple measures such as screening and treating infections in pregnant mothers and regular monitoring over the course of pregnancy. In addition to increasing women’s direct access to such prenatal care, the PREEMIE Act will enable health professionals to increase all mothers’ awareness of certain lifestyle choices that contribute to a healthy pregnancy.

However, for all of its promises, the $65 million offered by the PREEMIE Act is a mere pittance of government spending. For comparison, the US spent more than $165 million dollars protecting and rehabilitating the habitat of the Chinook salmon. Given that the current pre-term birth rate is the biggest contributor to the nation’s inexcusably high infant mortality rate, the measure currently under deliberation is woefully under-funded.

In recognition of November being Prematurity Awareness Month, the public should not only press lawmakers into reauthorizing the PREEMIE Act, but advocate for a substantive increase in the level of government funding dedicated to reducing the number of pre-term births in the US.

Marc Anderson is a 3rd-year cell biology Ph.D. student and may be reached at [email protected]

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