Reduce premature births

West Virginia has one of the highest percentages of children covered by health insurance in the nation. At the same time, the March of Dimes has given the state a D grade for the number of premature births.

The Mountain State did something about one threat to children’s health. Surely it can find ways to do something about the other.

More than one in 10 babies born in West Virginia comes into the world after 37 weeks of gestation or less, the March of Dimes reports. That seems to be the benchmark for premature birth.

Babies born too early can struggle to live during their first few weeks of life, then suffer continuing ill health.

Just five other states received D grades in the March of Dimes evaluation of premature birth rates. Three states – Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana – and Puerto Rico scored Fs.

West Virginia’s 10.8 percent of infants born too early does not compare favorably to the national average of 9.6 percent. But it has been improving. Just nine years ago, the rate in the Mountain State was 14 percent.

Improvements are an uphill struggle for what should be obvious reasons. West Virginians suffer from a higher poverty rate than most other states. Nutritional habits are abominable. Too many women continue to smoke and/or drink after becoming pregnant. All of those traits are risk factors for premature births.

And now, just as some progress was being made, a new factor – widespread drug abuse – has entered the picture.

So ensuring more women pursue healthy lifestyles that lessen risk to their babies is tougher than ever.

Once they are born, children in the state have an advantage over those in many others. It is health insurance, which West Virginians made a priority years ago. Using tools such as the CHIP program and Medicaid, West Virginia has reduced the percentage of uninsured children dramatically.

That same determination needs to be focused on preventing premature births. If state officials make that a priority, there is no reason to believe West Virginia cannot help more women give birth to healthier babies.