Bill targets premature births

Alexander-sponsored effort will expand research

Posted on December 12, 2006

WASHINGTON -- With the highest infant mortality rate in the country, Memphis is likely to benefit from a bill sponsored by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., aimed at finding and fighting the causes of premature births. The bill, which passed its last legislative hurdle on Saturday, is expected to be signed by President Bush. It calls for an expansion of research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention into the causes of prematurity. It also underwrites research into the relationship between premature births and birth defects, grant programs to educate health professionals, and a Surgeon General's conference on the subject. The Commercial Appeal examined in depth the problem of infant mortality, and the city's grim statistics, in a series of award-winning stories in 2005. It indicated that Memphis had the highest rate among the nation's top 60 cities and focused on efforts in Memphis and Shelby County to reach out to the community. "Premature infants are 14 times more likely to die in their first year than infants who are carried to term," Alexander said in a prepared statement. "Prematurity accounted for 19 percent of all childhood deaths in Tennessee in 2002 and, on average, 214 babies are born preterm in the state each week. "We simply do not know why half of these babies are born preterm and this legislation will help solve that mystery. It will also help us reduce the number of premature births and take better care of babies that do arrive too soon." Bob Duncan, vice president for advocacy and public policy at LeBonheur Children's Medical Center in Memphis, applauded the bill's passage and Alexander's work on the measure, which the hospital supported. LeBonheur sends nurses out into the homes of young, expectant mothers in a community-outreach effort and operates a neo-natal intensive care unit. Duncan said the legislation is a "wonderful starting point," which can be used as a catalyst for other efforts at the state and local level to deal with what he called an "abysmal" level of infant mortality in Memphis.