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Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014 12:01 am

Why so many small babies in Sangamon County?

 The abundance of doctors in Springfield doesn’t translate into a healthy population as a whole.

Sangamon County ranked 80 out of Illinois’ 102 counties in overall health in the County Health Rankings Report published by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The county ranked second place in clinical care, which measured numbers such as the amount of insured residents and physicians. On the other hand, Sangamon County showed a 95th place ranking of overall morbidity, which was used as a way to describe “quality of life” in the study, said Julie Willems Van Dijk, a deputy director of the project.

“While access to quality medical care is one component to maintaining health … that in and of itself isn’t enough to have long, healthy lives,” Willems Van Dijk said.

One measure of morbidity the county measured poorly on was low birth weight (LBW). Nationally, about 6 percent of births are classified as LBW, or under about 5.5 pounds. In Illinois, the average is 8.4 percent. Sangamon County’s rate for the same amount of time, from 2004-2010, was 9.3 percent. There were 1,630 LBW births to Sangamon County residents in the county during those seven years. That total does not include births in Sangamon County to out-of-county residents.

LBW can affect an individual’s quality of life in several ways, from immediate effects such as infections and sickness for newborn babies, to long-term issues, such as delayed development of motor and social skills. The study also states LBW children are at higher risk of cardiovascular disease and have a greater rate of respiratory conditions.

Dr. Robert Abrams, OB-GYN and chief of the division of maternal fetal medicine at SIU School of Medicine in Springfield, said one reason the county has a large number of LBW babies is the high volume of women who smoke. The report showed about 18 percent of Sangamon County residents are smokers, but Abrams said he would guess the real percentage is even higher. Smoking is one of the leading causes of LBW.

“It just seems like smoking is such a huge problem in central Illinois,” he said.

Abrams said a possible reason why he sees more women who smoke in Springfield than when he works in the Chicago area is possibly because tobacco use is tied to lower socioeconomic status and education.

The 9.3 percent LBW births did include premature births of babies born below the 5.5-pound LBW measure as well as the full-term LBW births. Premature births are classified as babies born before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Abrams said the reasons behind premature births are sometimes hard to identify.

“We’re seeing an unusual amount of small babies that we cannot explain,” he said.

Medical researchers are looking more closely at the links between chemicals in fertilizers and women’s diets as an emerging reason behind premature births and LBW, Abrams said.

Willems Van Dijk will be visiting Springfield to present her analysis of the study’s findings and offer tips on how the community as a whole can work to improve citizens’ health. For example, Willems Van Dijk said she would suggest local organizations look at the presence of LBW by different populations, such as by ethnicity or income. Then, a community effort to educate those groups on the risks of certain behaviors while pregnant would be a next step.

Health rankings

Sangamon County ranked 54 among the 102 counties in health behavior, which showed the county has similar numbers to statewide averages in areas including adult smoking, adult obesity, physical inactivity, excessive drinking, motor vehicle crash death rates and teen birth rates. The county had a higher number of sexually transmitted infections, 607 per 100,000 residents in 2010, making Sangamon County 10th highest for chlamydia in Illinois.

Sangamon County ranked 60 out of 102 counties for its physical environment, which included factors such as drinking water safety and the number of fast food restaurants. The county ranked 74 in social and economic factors, which included education and employment data. It came in third in highest violent crime rates.

The county ranked 57 in premature death.

Willems Van Dijk will be speaking at 6 p.m. Feb. 10 in Theater 3 of Hoogland Center for the Arts at a forum put on free to the public by SIU School of Medicine and the Citizens Club of Springfield.

The full report can be found at http://bit.ly/Sangamon.

Contact Lauren P. Duncan at intern@illinoistimes.com.

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