BY SUSAN ERLER
The rate of premature births has climbed steadily in Indiana during the past decade, and Lake County's rate is among the highest in the state, according to the March of Dimes.
To help reduce those numbers, the March of Dimes region office kicked off a campaign Tuesday leading up to its annual March for Babies next month.
"It's a huge mission," said Cheryl Taylor, March of Dimes community director for Lake County.
Taylor spoke at a gathering of March of Dimes volunteers and partners, including The Methodist Hospitals, which hosted the event and each year provides financial and volunteer support to the agency's efforts.
"We do a lot of critical care for babies," Methodist Hospitals Chief Executive Officer Ian McFadden said. "The March of Dimes is very dear to us."
The local office hopes to raise nearly $400,000 and attract more than 3,000 participants in its 2009 March for Babies walks scheduled jointly in Lake and Porter counties for April 26.
Nearly all money raised by the agency goes into research to reduce or eliminate birth defects, infant mortality and premature births, Taylor said.
Indiana will have to work harder than some other states to meet the March of Dimes goal of reducing the rate of preterm births -- babies born before 37 weeks -- to no more than 7.6 percent of live births.
In 2005, the most recent year for March of Dimes information, one in seven babies, or 13.5 percent, was born preterm in Indiana compared to 12.7 percent for the nation.
In Lake County, one in six babies was born preterm between 2002 and 2005, the organizations reported.
The preterm birth rate in Indiana was highest for black infants, at 18.5 percent, followed by Hispanics and whites, both at 12.6 percent, with Native Americans at 11.9 percent and Asians at 11.6 percent.
For more information on the 2009 March for Babies in Lake and Porter counties, call the March of Dimes Northwest Indiana office at (800) 431-9255.