Lake County's premature birth rate is improving, according to a report released last week by the March of Dimes.

The percentage of babies being born less than 37 weeks gestation decreased to 9.3 in 2015 from 9.9 in 2014.

Renae Vania-Tomczak, president and CEO of Mental Health America of Lake County, attributed to the drop to "education and a strong, consistent outreach effort in reaching vulnerable women and ensuring they get the prenatal care they need."

"Of course, the medical community's emphasis on quality care, utilizing best practices, and a reduction in elective deliveries all play an important role in the decline," she said.

Lake County got a grade of a C in the report — the same as the state as a whole — but had a lower preterm birth rate than Indiana's 10 percent.

A dip in the preterm birth rate could mean more babies living past their first birthdays. Prematurity is one of the leading causes of infant death. Lake County tied for the second-highest infant mortality rate of any Indiana county in 2016, according to the Indiana State Department of Health.

The report scored the six Indiana counties with the most births. Lake tied with St. Joseph County for the second-lowest premature birth rate. Only Hamilton scored better, while Allen, Elkhart and Marion fared worse.

Tim Kauffman, a spokesman for the March of Dimes' Midwest Region, said that while Lake County's improvement was small, some possible reasons for the decrease include the changing demographics of the county, fewer unplanned pregnancies, improved access to health care, and a reduction in elective early deliveries.

Risë Ratney, chairwoman of the Maternal Child Health Network of Lake County, said the county has received funding in recent years to start smoking cessation programs for pregnant woman — smoking is a risk factor for premature birth — and build community health centers, increasing access to care.

But some problems remain harder to tackle.

"You still have those social determinants of health you have to overcome: economic issues, education issues, housing issues, transportation issues," she said.

Vania-Tomczak said collaborations in Lake County — between various nonprofits, as well as social service agencies and medical professionals — are one reason Lake County's preterm birth rate has improved. For instance, her organization and HealthLinc, a Northwest Indiana health center, partnered to start a program called Early Start to reach expectant moms in East Chicago, which has historically led the state in infant deaths.

"Positive impact usually results from diverse partners coming together to address a community problem," she said. "The well-being of our youngest residents is most deserving of our attention and believe that in the coming years we’ll see even greater strides in improving the lives of Lake County babies."

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