For more than 25 years, I have had the privilege of caring for thousands of preterm infants at Cincinnati Children’s. Their will to survive is humbling, and it inspires my commitment to their treatment. Still, too many do not live to see their first birthday. This is why I believe it is imperative that prevention of preterm birth belongs at the top of our community’s collective agenda. If you care about education, jobs, poverty or equity – you should start caring about preterm birth.

In Hamilton County, about 1,500 babies are born preterm every year, a rate that is 17 percent higher than the national average. And our very-preterm birth rate, those babies born before 32 weeks gestation and most likely to face complications and death, is 55 percent higher than the nation’s. This problem not only drives our high infant mortality rate, but also associates with many other problems faced by our community.

Today, because our preterm birth rate has been high for so long, roughly 27,000 Hamilton County children under the age of 18 were born too early. Many are thriving. But they all face an increased risk of developmental delays by age 3 and poor reading skills by age 8. As they grow up, they become less likely to graduate from high school, and have lower incomes and fewer opportunities for upward mobility. Many of our community’s toughest challenges began with challenging pregnancies. If we want to invest in our future, we must invest in today’s mothers.

Cradle Cincinnati, a collaborative aimed at reducing our infant mortality rate, has discovered that 76 percent of our 2013 infant deaths were babies that were born preterm. While preterm birth is complicated, we also now know that there are two local factors that are particularly important: spacing and smoking. Moms can help reduce their chance of preterm birth by spacing their pregnancies at least 12 months apart and by avoiding all tobacco products during their pregnancy.

Women who have previously had a preterm birth are at the highest risk. Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center has recently partnered with TriHealth and UC Health to open the Familial Preterm Birth Clinic that gives special care to families that have already had a preterm birth. Interested families should call 513-636-3882 to learn more.

Preterm birth is not an easy problem to solve. We will need the help and partnership of the entire community to succeed. There are few, if any, issues more worth uniting around.

Dr. Jim Greenberg, Co-founder and physician lead for Cradle Cincinnati

You can also find the editorial over at the Cincinnati Enquirer.