Black babies in Alabama are two times more likely to die than white babies.
That disparity has existed for years, according to 10 years of statistics from the Alabama Department of Public Health Center for Health Statistics. And while the gap actually dropped in 2017, it remains an area of concern that public health officials believe must be addressed.
In 2017, the black infant mortality rate was 11.3 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared to 5.6 for white infants. In 2016, the rate was 15.1 deaths per 1,000 live births for black babies compared to 5.0 for white infants.
“These statistics can’t lie, so now it’s about what we do with it,” Janice Smiley, director of the Perinatal Health Division of the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH), told officials attending a two-day Infant Mortality Reduction Summit recently in Prattville.
It’s not a disparity that’s unique to Alabama. Nationally, the gap is the same as it is in Alabama: 2 to 1.
First and foremost we must all agree that the death of any baby is difficult to accept — no matter what color the infant’s skin is. Secondly, we must acknowledge that the threat is greater and real for black infants, and that deserves the attention of all health care officials.
The reasons for the disparity are complex and are rooted in social structures from generations past, according to organizers for the North Carolina-based Racial Equity Institute. Part of it is the economic gap between blacks and whites, but Jennifer Schaal pointed out to summit attendees you can’t just point to socioeconomics.
“When you are creating programs or analyzing data, you have to break it down by race and look at the racial effect,” Schaal said. “We have to constantly address it and constantly look at it because what may be good for white people may not always be good for black people.”
ADPH statistics point to three major causes for infant mortality in Alabama — low birth weight, preterm births before 37 weeks gestation, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Nationally, experts cite things like good housing, safe neighborhoods, stable jobs, proper diet and available transportation. Stress or trauma during pregnancy is a key factor that can lead to premature delivery.
In 2018, Gov. Kay Ivey announced the state had developed a pilot program to reduce overall infant mortality rates by 20% within five years.
The major elements are an increased emphasis upon screening for substance abuse, a focus on domestic violence and depression, breastfeeding promotion, and teaching parents how to place their babies for safer sleeping.
“If we are going to move the needle in the right direction,” said ADPH’s Smiley, “we’ve got to have our legislators on board, we’ve got to have programs doing the right thing, we’ve got to be implementing those programs in the communities needed.”
She’s right. Promoting the safety and well-being of our tiniest and most helpless citizens should be a goal of lawmakers and health officials across the state.