New premature birth report card shows glaring Minnesota disparties

The number of overall preterm births in Minnesota are dropping, but only if the mothers are white.

New research from the March of Dimes shows both the overall preterm, or premature births, along with the infant mortality rate took a dive in 2020. But the breakout demographic data shows premature births and infant deaths among Hispanic, Black, and Native American mothers are significantly higher than those for white mothers.

The 2021 March of Dimes Report Card gives Minnesota a grade of B- for its preterm birth rate of 9.1%. The new data reflects a drop of .2% from the last report in 2019. The national preterm birth rate is 10.1%, which the March of Dimes gives a C- grade. 

"For the first time in six years, the preterm birth rate went down a bit, nationwide, but also here in Minnesota," said Ellen Jirik, the maternal and infant health manager of the Minnesota chapter of the March of Dimes. "But what we also see is increases in the preterm birth rate for Black and Indigenous mothers, despite the overall decrease in preterm birth rates."

The March of Dimes data shows the preterm birth rate for Black people in Minnesota is 10%. The rate for Hispanics is 9.8%, while the rate for American Indians is 14.4%. Among Minnesota’s Native American mothers, the preterm birth rate is 62% higher than the rate among all over women.

"While overall it seems to be getting better with preterm birth in infant mortality, it’s really only getting better if you’re white," said Jirik. "So the disparities, the wealth, the gap in care, and access to care is more glaring than ever." 

Part of the way the March of Dimes and other agencies are trying to fight the disparities is through new programming. Hennepin Healthcare recently opened the brand new Redleaf Center for Family Healing. It’s located within the HCMC complex in downtown Minneapolis, and it gives mothers a safe space to connect with counselors and medical teams to deal with mental health issues of both pregnancy and parenting. The center has playing areas for young children and even a kitchen for families to prepare meals.

"Redleaf Center for Family Healing is really important because they believe in investing in the mental and emotional wellbeing of parents, the family, the mother and baby dyad, and that directly affects these numbers and improves these numbers overall," said Jirik.

The new data sets from the March of Dimes don’t just reveal persistent disparities, they also reveal some surprises, especially in infant deaths.  The overall infant mortality rate in Minnesota dropped to 4.5%, the lowest level in ten years. Although researchers do not know exactly why there was such a drop, they are hypothesizing that it may be tied to many working mothers staying home during the coronavirus pandemic.

"Something that we are definitely considering, are women staying home and resting more during their pregnancies," said Jirik. "So we’re looking at a lot of different reasons, but lifestyle changes during the pandemic are certainly a factor."

There are still unanswered questions about a mixed report of both positive trends and growing disparities.

"So the disparities, the wealth, the gap in care, and the access to care is more glaring than ever," said Jirik.