For Immediate Release
August 9, 2010

KDHE Office of Communications
communications@kdheks.gov, 785-296-0461

Looking Deeper into Infant Mortality in Kansas

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

Why is the infant mortality problem in Kansas so bad, and why isn’t it getting better?

Why have deaths in Kansas among babies less than one year of age increased by 16 percent since 2000, pushing our state’s rank to number 40 among the 50 states, according to Kids Count, a report released in late July by the Annie E. Casey Foundation?

Why does the black infant mortality rate in Kansas remain at double the white rate? Why does a black baby born in Kansas today have less chance of surviving to its first birthday than a baby born in the refugee camps of the Palestinian territories in the Middle East?

And finally, why can’t the good people living in the heartland of the richest nation on earth solve this problem and do better for our littlest, most vulnerable citizens?

These are tough questions, questions that weigh heavily on the minds of compassionate people from all walks of life who have mobilized in recent years to fight infant mortality all around our state.

Many of these dedicated people serve on the state’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Infant Mortality. The panel was convened last year by the Secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, after discussion with the governor’s office.

For panel members, these are the questions that keep them up at night.

In one sense, the answers to such questions are obvious. Infants are dying in Kansas because too many of their mothers today have been marginalized in lives of poverty.

Undervalued by the larger society, sometimes stigmatized by racism, and often unloved by their own families, many young women whose babies are dying have arrived at their pregnancies ill-prepared for the responsibilities of motherhood.

Lacking the social support that every young person needs, these women are more likely while pregnant to smoke tobacco, drink alcohol, use drugs, eat an inadequate diet, suffer from domestic violence, and miss out on obtaining needed prenatal care.

The result too often is a baby who is born too small, or is delivered too young, or has congenital defects that cannot be overcome.

So the social factors at the root of our state’s infant mortality problem aren’t really a mystery. What’s difficult to figure out is how to fix the problem, when there are no easy answers.

How do we make it easier for every woman in our state to get the social support she needs to face the challenges of pregnancy successfully?

How do we strengthen her to find good foods to eat, to avoid tobacco, alcohol and other drugs – before, during and after pregnancy – and to escape from abusive living situations?

How do we remove the barriers for her to access early and regular prenatal care as a fundamental right of all mothers-to-be?

These are the really tough questions. They ask us to place a higher value on the health, safety and well-being of young women than we have been doing lately in our culture.

They ask us to look beyond ourselves and open our hearts to our neighbors in need.

Improving the lot of poor young women in our state will be expensive, though not as costly as ignoring the problem. Currently at KDHE we are applying for federal aid to establish a home visiting program in our neediest communities, where nurses and other professionals will offer support to women and young children at highest risk.

Such programs are a start. But our state’s infant mortality problem won’t go away until we all get serious about the social conditions behind it.

Dr. Eberhart-Phillips is the Kansas State Health Officer and Director of Health in the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. He can be reached at jeberhart-phillips@kdheks.gov. Previous columns are now available online at Dr. Jason’s Blog, www.kdheks.gov/blogs/dr_jasons_blogs.htm.