If black infants born in the United States had all of the health and medical benefits enjoyed by white infants, nearly 4,000 fewer of them would die each year, new research suggests.
That would amount to a nearly 60% decrease in the number of black infants that die each year. Instead, black babies are nearly 2.5 times more likely than white babies to die during their first year of life.
Infant mortality in the U.S. has been on the decline overall, falling 15% in the last decade, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Researchers from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, wondered whether that improvement was shared equally by black and white infants.
Their conclusion: Not quite.
Both black and white infants (defined as babies up to the age of 1 year) did see improvements over the 10-year span between 2005 and 2015. In fact, infant mortality — the number of infant deaths divided by the number of births — decreased more dramatically for blacks than whites.
But it didn't fall nearly enough to erase the substantial gap at the start of the study period.
In 2005, 5.7 out of every 1,000 white infants died before their first birthday. A decade later, that figure had dropped 16%, to 4.8 deaths per 1,000 white infants.
Meanwhile, the 2005 infant mortality rate for blacks was 14.3 per 1,000 births. By 2012, that rate fell to 11.6 per 1,000 — a 19% decrease. The rate then remained essentially flat, hitting 11.7 per 1,000 in 2015.
Over the 10-year period, the number of "excess" deaths suffered by black infants dropped from 8.6 to 6.9 per 1,000 infants, the researchers wrote.
They also examined the infant mortality rates for the four leading causes of death to babies in their first year of life — preterm birth and low birth weight, birth defects, sudden infant death syndrome, and "maternal complications." All other causes of infant mortality were grouped into a fifth category.
The single biggest contributor to the infant mortality gap was the preterm birth and low birth weight category.
In 2005, these factors caused 78.2 deaths per 100,000 births for whites and 309.2 deaths per 100,000 births for blacks. The gap narrowed over the following decade, to 69.7 and 256.9 deaths per 100,000 births for whites and blacks, respectively.
Even so, black infants were almost 4 times more likely to die of these causes.
Preterm births, which occur before a pregnancy reaches the 37-week mark, puts babies at increased risk of complications like asthma, cerebral palsy, infections and developmental disabilities, according to the March of Dimes. Low birth weight, which describes newborns who weigh less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces, increases the risk of heart, lung and intestinal conditions, among other problems.
"Interventions to further reduce the rate of preterm birth among black infants appear the most promising option for reducing black infant mortality and the absolute inequality between black and white infants," the researchers wrote.
The study was published Monday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
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