For Immediate Release
February 3, 2010

KDHE Office of Communications, 785-296-0461

Infant Mortality: Giving Our Most to the Littlest Kansans

An Op-Ed Column by Jason Eberhart-Phillips, MD
Kansas State Health Officer and Director of Health

If it is true, as Mahatma Gandhi once said, that “a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members,” then we Americans – especially we who live in Kansas – need to think hard about how we are treating our youngest citizens, and what we must do better to keep them from death’s door.

America’s infant mortality rate – the rate by which children under one year of age are dying – is the highest among all industrialized countries. Our country’s infant death rate, currently in the range of 6 to 7 deaths for every 1,000 births, is roughly three times higher than world-leading Singapore.

But most alarming for us in Kansas is how many babies are dying in our own state, about 300 each year.

Kansas, which once did better on infant mortality than the United States as a whole, has in recent years been falling further and further back, now posting the 18th worst showing of any state. While the national infant mortality rate has been gradually falling each year, the rate in Kansas – more than 7 per 1,000 – is essentially unchanged from the late 1990s.

Kansas does worse than the country as a whole in every racial and ethnic group, but it is among African-American babies born here that the death rate is truly astounding. While many states have recently made progress in closing the black-white gap in infant mortality, Kansas has not.

Currently the infant mortality rate among black Kansas babies is about 14 per 1,000, more than double the white rate. Blacks account for 7 percent of all births in Kansas but suffer from 17 percent of infant deaths.

What this means is that despite our highly advanced health care system, a black baby born today in Kansas has a lower chance of surviving to its first birthday than a baby born in war-torn Bosnia, or Brunei, or Costa Rica or the Ukraine.

What can be done in Kansas to bring down the infant mortality rate?

That’s been the question before the Kansas Blue Ribbon Panel since it came together for the first time in July last year. The panel, which consists of 22 experts in maternal, infant and child health, has this week disclosed its interim recommendations, after examining best practices from around the country.

The panel’s work is by no means complete, but it has reached some early conclusions that fall into four areas. To tackle our infant mortality problem, the panel says Kansas needs:

Improved ability to gather relevant data. We simply don’t know enough yet to intervene effectively, without better understanding of the unique challenges pregnant women and their babies face in this state. The panel has sponsored a bill in this legislative session to enable public health researchers in Kansas to collect useful information on births and infant deaths, as is now done in most other states, to answer some of the unsolved questions.

Increased public awareness and education.  Most Kansans are unaware of the infant mortality problem, but would support promoting healthier lifestyles for women of childbearing age to reduce the risk.

Increased access to care and services.  More effort to provide all pregnant women with early, targeted and comprehensive prenatal care could prevent some infant deaths.

Strengthened programs and interventions. These include development of a state genetics plan, new quality improvement initiatives and active support for policies that reduce tobacco exposure in pregnancy and beyond, such as the statewide Clean Indoor Air Act. While none of these measures will completely solve the infant mortality puzzle, the panel believes that each effort addresses part of the problem.

Our infant mortality troubles are too big and too complex for easy answers, even if all the panel’s recommendations are adopted. There is still much to do. But if we start now to acknowledge the problem, and collectively begin to focus our attention on how we can save these smallest of our fellow Kansans, no one will question the greatness of our state and its caring, compassionate people.

Dr. Eberhart-Phillips is the Kansas State Health Officer and Director of Health in the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.