The number of infants who die before their first birthday is a pointer to health conditions for women and infants in a community. As a statistic, the rate captures the breadth of social and economic factors that affect the quality of life for women of child-bearing age, such factors as income and education and access to nutritious food and medical care.
The U.S. infant mortality rate in 2013 was estimated to be 5.9 per 1,000 live births, similar to those in countries such as Croatia and Bosnia and higher than Cuba’s rate of 4.8, despite the gulf of difference in health facilities and resources.
Ohio shows up even worse, as state Sens. Shannon Jones and Charleta Tavares emphasized last week in unveiling an initiative to address the problem. The rate in 2012 stood at 7.56, an improvement from the 7.87 in the previous year. Break out the details, and the picture is grim.
The death rate for white infants was 6.37. For black babies, it was a dismal 13.98. This rate (which reflects a decline from 15.96 in 2010) is the same as the rate in the West Bank, according to the CIA World Factbook. Ohio ranks 47th overall in infant mortality in the nation — 38th, if ranked by white deaths, and 49th if measured by African-American deaths.
The death rate in Ohio has barely shifted in a decade. With the wealth of health information and facilities in the state, it is a disgrace that Ohio ranks at the bottom with regard to infant deaths. Driving down the numbers has been a priority for several years for state and local health officials, a state task force in 2009 identifying the challenges and issuing recommendations. Yet, the persisting high rates show the need for a more robust effort to improve the odds of survival for the most vulnerable babies as well as narrow the racial disparity in outcomes.
As the task force and records show, the most common causes of infant death are complications with infants born too early and too small; birth defects and sudden, unexplained infant death syndrome, SUIDS. Important, too, the task force identified critical gaps in maternal health care. Many women lack health coverage for reproductive, prenatal and post-partum care. Many areas are short of women’s health-care providers. Also, effective procedures for preventing premature births are not universally applied.
Coverage expansion through Medicaid and the health exchanges will relieve some of the barriers. So will initiatives already in effect, such as family planning services in Medicaid, well-baby programs and extensive campaigns for preventive care. It is encouraging that the bipartisan duo of Shannon Jones and Charleta Tavares is pressing the case, following their own exploratory work this past summer. Their five bills deserve the early attention of their colleagues.