Alberta still plagued by high rate of premature babies

As doctors, researchers and parents try to sort out why Alberta's preterm birth rate sits at 8.7 per cent, there are calls for more funding to be spent on prevention.

Province's preterm birth rate is 8.7 per cent

Kelli Vacon's son Maverick was born in January, weighing less than two pounds. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

The cooing and gurgling of a newborn baby now fills Kelli Vacon's tidy Calgary living room.

But for months after her son Maverick was born, it was strangely quiet. He was recently released from hospital, after 88 days in neonatal intensive care.

Little Maverick was born at 26 weeks. That's three months early. He weighed less than two pounds.

"[It was] really scary, pretty traumatic," said Vacon, who delivered Maverick by emergency c-section and spent months by his side in the NICU.

Kelli Vacon and her son, Maverick, participated in several studies about premature birth while he was in neonatal intensive care. (Submitted by Kelli Vacon)

"It's a hard environment too because you're in little baby cubicles where they're hooked up to machines and IVs and feeding tubes and in little isolettes. And you can only hold them for so long."

Alberta preemie rate higher than other provinces

Vacon's story is not as unusual as you might think. According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, Alberta continues to have a higher rate of premature births than any other province.

8.7 per cent of babies born in 2016-2017 were delivered before 37 weeks gestation.

Maverick Vacon was born at 26 weeks. He was recently released from neonatal intensive care after 88 days. (Submitted by Kelli Vacon)

"We've known this for Alberta for a long time," said Karen Benzies, professor and associate dean of research in the faculty of nursing at the University of Calgary.

Benzies has spent countless hours in Calgary's neonatal intensive care units over her career, trying to pinpoint why and  improve support for the families of preemies.

According to Benzies, researchers have learned demographics are part of the explanation.

Albertans tend to be young, highly educated and upwardly mobile. Women in that demographic often put off having children to pursue their careers.

University of Calgary nursing professor Karen Benzies has been researching preterm birth for years. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

The problem, according to Benzies, is that delaying childbirth into your 30s can lead to complications such as high blood pressure or diabetes.

"I don't think most people believe their fertility is going to decline rapidly after age 31 and so we need to change those misperceptions."

There is a long list of other factors that can lead to premature birth, including pre-existing health problems, the use of alcohol and tobacco, and in vitro fertilization treatments — which can result in multiples.

Funding for prevention needed

According to Alberta Health, 3,590 babies were born preterm in 2016, excluding multiples.

"I think it is worrisome," said Dr. Doug Wilson, head of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Calgary's Cumming School of Medicine.

"One of the problems, why we've had difficulty moving the dial and decreasing preterm birth is because there are so many different factors," said Wilson.

"There's not a single treatment. There's not a single therapy. There's not a single approach that's going to get to all the different issues."

A doctor looks directly into the camera while sitting in his office. There are files stacked on the desk behind him.
Dr. Doug Wilson, department head of obstetrics and gynaecology in the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary, says there is no single solution for Alberta's high preterm birth rate (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

Wilson would like to see more funding directed to prevention.

"Fetuses and children don't vote. So [politicians] don't tend to focus as much on pregnancy as they do on diseases of aging populations."

And when Albertans are making charitable donations, Wilson says that money is often directed to neonatal intensive care units in an effort to help babies who are already born.

What's lacking, he says, is an awareness about the need to stop the trend in the first place.

Hoping to help others

Back in Kelli Vacon's living room, little Maverick finishes a bottle and squirms in his mom's arms. He's surprisingly strong.

Vacon has volunteered for several studies in an effort to help researchers unravel the causes of Alberta's high premature birth rate and ensure more babies in this province are born full-term.

"We think it's really important because if they can prevent things from happening or if they can make sure that these babies get … better care if that's what they need, then that's great," said Vacon.

Maverick Vacon will be monitored closely for complications during the first few years of his life. (Submitted by Kelli Vacon)

Despite his good health, Maverick will have countless appointments with specialists in the first few years of his life and will be monitored closely for long-term complications.

It's a worry Vacon hopes fewer Alberta families will have to face in the years to come.

"So far we've been really lucky I think and really blessed that he's done so well. But we have no idea what the future brings."


Jennifer Lee


Jennifer Lee is a CBC News reporter based in Calgary. She worked at CBC Toronto, Saskatoon and Regina, before landing in Calgary in 2002. If you have a health or human interest story to share, let her know.