Health: Danger Signal

Declining infant mortality and rising gross national product have signified social and economic success since the Industrial Revolution. But for the first time in 20 years California's infant-mortality rate is rising. Inadequate prenatal care is a major factor.

Despite this clear warning signal, a California Senate committee has suspended action on a measure (SB 1071) that would expand the existing perinatal (prenatal and early infant care) program. The bill, introduced by state Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach), could provide prenatal care for an additional 10,000 women.

Although the measure would cost about $10 million per year, it is estimated that each $1 spent on prenatal care saves $2 in medical-care costs for infants with undiagnosed birth complications. Bergeson still plans to push the Legislature for improvements in prenatal care. She should have the full and urgent support of both the Legislature and the governor.

In 1985 more than 4,400 babies died within a year after birth, one-third of these in Los Angeles County. With proper prenatal care, health experts say, 50% of those deaths could have been prevented. But, increasingly, care is no longer available. The lack of early prenatal care has been directly linked to increased premature births, retardation and birth defects.

More than 2,000 Orange County women were turned away from county prenatal clinics last year. The need was greater than the resources. In Los Angeles County, women wait an average of six to eight weeks for medical treatment. But in some inner-city programs the situation is far worse. Here, many women wait 19 weeks, or 4 1/2 months.

Doctors at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center say that one of every five maternity patients delivers her baby with no prenatal care at all. They estimate that this lack of medical treatment is responsible for 50% of the hospital's infant deaths.

A rise in the birthrate without a comparable rise in state and county funding accounts for the decline in adequate maternity care. Primarily affected by the squeeze are the working poor--those who earn too much to receive welfare, but have no insurance and cannot afford private medical care.

It is time to restore the balance between economic and health priorities--and, perhaps through this, to regain some sense of self-esteem. We are no longer risking lives, we are losing them.

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