Increase in Black Infant Deaths Stumps Health Officials

David Wahlberg, Wisconsin State Journal (Madison), March 24, 2011

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Dane County’s black infant mortality rate, which dropped for several years and became a national success story, shot up again to four times the rate for whites over the past three years, leaving health officials stumped.

The rate of black babies who die before their first birthday soared in 2008, after low rates from 2002 to 2007 drew attention as a glimmer of hope in solving an intractable problem across the country.

The rate remained somewhat high in 2009, and the just-released rate for 2010 is considerably more–19.2 deaths per 1,000 births compared with 3.5 for whites–a three-year trend confirming the black-white gap that seemed to have vanished has returned.

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A fetal and infant mortality review committee, to meet for the first time next week, will study each death and try to identify patterns and opportunities for improvement, Schlenker [Tom Schlenker, director of the Madison-Dane County Health Department] said. Committee members might interview some parents and health care providers involved, he said.

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Schlenker said the increase in deaths is surprising because black women appear to be using prenatal care as much as before, and most health services in the Madison area haven’t changed much in recent years.

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UW-Madison researchers have been examining the situation in Dane County and comparing it with southeast Wisconsin, where the black-white gap has remained. A study is looking at whether nonprofits helped reduce deaths among black babies last decade, said Jeanan Yasiri, executive director of the UW Center for Nonprofits.

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The troubling statistics involve a relatively small number of infant deaths.

Last year, 30 babies died in the county, of 5,927 births. Of 522 black births, 10 babies died. Half of them were born prematurely.

Six black babies died in 2009 and 10 died in 2008. From 2002 to 2007, an average of three black babies died each year.

The black infant mortality rate, which averaged about 19 deaths per 1,000 births before 2002, dropped to about 6 deaths per 1,000 births over the following years, similar to the rate for white babies.

The decline was highlighted by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention because a racial gap remained in most of the country, and was covered by The New York Times and Newsweek.

Averaged over three years to account for variations in any one year, the black infant mortality rate rose to 17 deaths per 1,000 births between 2008 and 2010, compared with 4 deaths per 1,000 births for whites over that same period.

The toll of the reappearing gap is measured in dollars as well as lives, Schlenker said. “Babies are dying, and the premature babies who survive only do so at great cost and oftentimes with lifelong disabilities,” he said.

He said he still thinks the positive trend last decade was real, but so is the pattern for the past three years.

“Unfortunately, it’s not a fluke,” he said.

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