Infant Death Rate Increases in Southern States, Racial Disparity Also Rises
Recent progress in reducing infant death rates has stalled, with some Southern states experiencing increases -- a trend health experts call "an ominous portent," the New York Times reports. According to the Times, federal officials say that whether the rates for infant death continue to increase in the South or not, they have "stagnated ... at levels well above" the average nationwide. "Most striking" about the trend across the U.S. is the large racial disparity, the Times reports. For example, infant deaths for blacks in Mississippi increased from 14.2 per 1,000 in 2004 to 17 per 1,000 in 2005, while infant deaths for whites increased from 6.1 per 1,000 to 6.6 per 1,000 during that time period. Overall, infant deaths in Mississippi totaled 11.4 per 1,000 in 2005, compared with the national average of 6.9 per 1,000 in 2003, the last year in which data were collected. Smaller increases occurred in Alabama, North Carolina and Tennessee. Louisiana and South Carolina experienced infant death rate increases in 2004 but have not yet reported 2005 data. The main causes of infant death in low-income Southern states include Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, congenital defects, and deaths from accident and disease, especially among low-income, black, teenage mothers.
Cuts in Social Programs
According to the Times, the infant death rate increases "have raised questions about the impact of cuts in welfare and Medicaid and of poor access to doctors." Many doctors say that "the growing epidemics of obesity, diabetes and hypertension among potential mothers" also is contributing to higher rates of infant deaths, in part because obesity makes it more difficult to perform diagnostic tests, the Times reports. Social workers say cuts in social programs, lack of transportation and low self-esteem all combine to make it more difficult for women to receive prenatal care. Stringent requirements implemented in 2004 in Mississippi resulted in a 54,000-person decline in the number of nonelderly residents, particularly children, enrolled in Medicaid and SCHIP. Mississippi also made cuts in the state's system of clinics because of budgetary shortfalls and staffing shortages. William Langston, an obstetrician at the Mississippi Department of Health, said officials were investigating the cause of the sudden increase in infant deaths and the state was working to expand prenatal care and outreach efforts. Mississippi Medicaid Director Robert Robinson said suggesting any correlation between declines in Medicaid enrollment and an increase in infant deaths is "pure conjecture," adding that cuts to the program were intended to eliminate unqualified residents. He added that with 95 enrollment sites available, individuals should not have problems signing up. Oleta Fitzgerald, southern regional director for the Children's Defense Fund, said, "When you see drops in the welfare rolls, when you see drops in Medicaid and children's insurance, you see a recipe for disaster. Somebody's not eating, somebody's not going to the doctor and unborn children suffer" (Eckholm, New York Times, 4/22).