Md. infant deaths high

Black babies 3 times as likely to die as whites

August 07, 2008|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,Sun reporter

Infant mortality remains very high in Maryland, especially for African-American infants, who are three times as likely to die as white infants, state health figures show.

According to statistics released by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, infant deaths rose to 623 in 2007, which means eight newborns died for every 1,000 live births. Though the infant mortality rate varies somewhat. Maryland fares poorly when compared with other states - it ranked 31st, based on 2005 statistics, and the rate of infant deaths has gone up 5 percentage points since then.

"We're seeing a negative trend going from 31st to potentially worse. And you're talking about one of the wealthiest states in the country going from mediocre to bad," said Matthew Joseph, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth, which analyzed the new figures in a report to be released today.

FOR THE RECORD - It was stated in this story that 116 percent of federal poverty level for a family of three is $17,600. In fact, it is $20,416 for a family of three. The Sun regrets the error. (Unpublished correction)

Last year, 4.6 white babies died per 1,000 births, compared with 14 African-American infant deaths. "The rate got better for white babies but worse for African-American babies," Joseph said. "That's definitely a source of alarm for the state."

In one encouraging development, the number of low-birth-weight babies decreased very moderately to 7,133, which represents 9.1 percent of all births, the group's analysis found. But racial disparities persisted: 7.1 percent of white babies had low birth-weight, compared with 12.9 percent of African-American babies.

The share of women receiving prenatal care during their first trimester has been steadily declining, according to the new data. In 2007, the number dipped below 80 percent, which means that one in five Maryland women do not receive early prenatal care.

Although pregnant women in Maryland are eligible for publicly funded prenatal care if their income is less than 250 percent of the federal poverty level, many of them are not coming in early in their pregnancies because they don't know that they are covered or because they don't have access to a provider who accepts Medicaid, health officials said.

"Maryland has a sizable uninsured population and a sizable population in the lower socioeconomic range - I think that explains a lot of it," said Howard County's health officer, Dr. Peter L. Beilenson.

Baltimore Health Commissioner Joshua M. Sharfstein called the figures "embarrassing."

"I think one of the problems is that women have insurance when they are pregnant, then they lose it after they have the baby, which means that they're out of care. So they have to get plugged back in when they're pregnant again," he said. "Women need access to health care just as women. Not just as mothers."

On July 1, the state expanded its publicly funded health insurance to include parents with income up to 116 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $17,600 for a family of three. Since the change went into effect, more than 5,000 people have enrolled.

"It's a pretty big step. It's directly on point," said Sharfstein, adding that the city, which generally fares worse on infant health measures than the state, will roll out a major enrollment campaign this fall.

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