New Jersey has signed a pledge to reduce the state's preterm birth rate by 8% in an effort to give more children a healthy start in life. Department of Health Commissioner Mary O'Dowd says New Jersey is one of 48 states, along with District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, who have signed on to the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials' Healthy Babies Project. The initiative is in partnership with the March of Dimes.

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Statistics reveal that every year, 10% of the more than 106,000 babies delivered in New Jersey are born premature. Infants that are born preterm are at greater risk for lifelong health challenges like respiratory problems, cerebral palsy, vision or hearing loss or learning disabilities and death. Preterm birth is also a substantial contributor to rising health care costs and, according to the Institute of Medicine, costs society more than $26 billion annually.

"It is important for the Department to take a leadership role in setting this goal for New Jersey, but it is only possible to achieve it through strong collaboration with our public health partners, providers and community leaders," explains O'Dowd. "The Department of Health will work with its partners to decrease the preterm birth rate by 8% to 9.2% by 2014. This reduction translates to 1,000 more babies being born full-term in our state."

This year, New Jersey received $9.4 million in federal funding to expand home visitation services to help at-risk families with an array of health and social services - individualized support in the home setting to pregnant women.

The State Health Department is working to improve birth outcomes through several programs. Through the Access to Prenatal Care Initiative, it provides more than $3 million in funding to improve early access to prenatal care services for at-risk women, including outreach and education, case management and direct care. The Department provides nearly $1 million to the Maternal and Child Health Consortia to provide prevention education and to screen pregnant and postpartum women for substance abuse, smoking and domestic violence and refer them to appropriate treatment. The Department also co-sponsors the New Jersey Hospital Association's Perinatal Collaborative, which brings together hospitals and leading experts in perinatal care and patient safety to improve the care and information provided to patients.

O’Dowd says, "While many of the causes of preterm birth are unknown, we do have scientifically proven interventions that can make a difference."