This State's Infant Mortality Rate Is The Highest Its Been In Almost 10 Years, & The Reason Why Is So Sad

by Annamarya Scaccia

New research released over the spring found that the United States' overall infant mortality rate had reached new lows. But, in some states, the number of newborn deaths have actually risen. In fact, recent statistics have shown that Alabama's infant mortality rate is the highest its been in eight years. The state also has the third highest infant mortality rate in the country.

Data released Thursday by the Alabama Department of Public Health revealed that, out of more than 59,000 live births in 2016, 537 newborns died before 1 years old, according to WRAL. That represents an infant mortality rate of 9.1 deaths per 1,000 live births that year. The three leading causes of death, according to that state health department, were premature births, congenital malformations, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), WRAL reported.

Dr. Scott Harris, Alabama's acting state health officer, told WRAL,

Our infant mortality rate is troubling and disheartening and trending in the wrong direction. Challenges include ensuring mothers have access to health care before, during, and after pregnancy, reducing premature births, the opioid epidemic, and addressing persistent racial disparities.

The percentage of preterm births also increased in Alabama, according to WRAL. State health department data showed that there were 12 percent of births before 37 weeks of gestation. That represents a 0.3-percent increase from the year prior.

And, even more alarming: The number of infant deaths is not equal across races in Alabama. The mortality rate among black babies in 2016 was more than two times that of white newborns — 15.1 deaths compared to 6.5 deaths per 1,000 live births, according to Alabama Public Radio.

Nor is the uptick in infant mortality rate. In June, the Alabama Department of Public Health revealed that the number of deaths among Black babies in 2015 was the highest it had been in a decade, according to the Birmingham Times. That year, the mortality rates for black infants was also triple the rate among white newborns — 15.3 death per 1,000 births versus 5.2 per 1,000, the Birmingham Times reported.

The state's racial disparity in infant deaths is reflective of a nationwide trend, though. Black and Hispanic newborns are twice as likely to die than white newborns, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Many public health experts and advocates attribute the disparity in infant mortality to inequality in medical care access and treatment, according to Newsweek. Research has shown that black and Latina mothers are less likely to receive prenatal and postnatal services, as well as access preventive health care due to poverty, bias, discrimination, and other barriers.

Globally, the infant mortality rate isn't fairing better. According to a recent United Nations report, the number of neonatal deaths has not decreased at a significant rate over the last two decades, despite medical advancements. In its report, the United Nations revealed that more than two million newborns worldwide died in 2016, accounting for 46 percent of all child deaths before the age of 5.

That's a 5-percent uptick in infant deaths within a 15-year period. At that rate, the United Nations predicts that an estimated 30 million newborns are projected to die within the first 28 days of life by 2030.

Many of these deaths, though, are preventable. According to the World Health Organization, the leading causes of neonatal deaths include pregnancy- and birth-related complications, congenital abnormalities, and infections. Many of these conditions can be either be prevented or diagnosed early and treated with better medical care access.

According to WRAL, the Alabama Department of Public Health has begun work to reduce the infant mortality rate by targeting tobacco use and safe sleep education. The health department also plans to encourage people to wait longer between pregnancies.

Whether or not these strategies will work in the long run remains to be seen. But, if nothing else, the infant mortality rate in Alabama shows that public health officials and doctors need to do more to protect babies.

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