Black Infant Deaths Twice Whites’ : Federal Study Shows a Racial Disparity on Life Expectancy

Times Staff Writer

Black babies in the United States continue to die in greater numbers than white babies, while those who live still have a shorter life expectancy than their white counterparts, according to a study released Wednesday by the health and human services department.

“This report shows, as have others for as long as they have been issued, that there is a disparity between the health of our white and black populations,” said Louis W. Sullivan, health secretary. “This is a problem which cries out for our attention.”

While the overall number of infant deaths has decreased steadily over the last 20 years, the study--the annual report on the nation’s health--shows that for each 1,000 live births in the United States, 18 black babies die, compared to only about 9 white babies.

Six Years Longer


At the same time, the study found that whites will live an average of six years longer than blacks, who, Sullivan said, “suffer disproportionately from cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other major killers.”

Manning Feinleib, director of the National Center for Health Statistics, attributed much of the racial difference to living conditions, access to health care and increasing violence and drug use in the black community. Although data for 1987 and 1988 is not yet complete, he predicted that the trend will continue.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), called the statistics “disturbingly familiar” and said that “it is especially disturbing that black babies die at a rate double that of white babies.”

Waxman, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health and the environment, was critical of “the Administration’s silence” on health issues and said that he looks forward to working with Sullivan on the problems.


"(Sullivan) is being straightforward and candid and not trying to hide these problems,” Waxman said in a statement released Wednesday afternoon. “But now we must move toward concrete solutions.”

Despite a slight increase in life-expectancy among the overall population, the report also found a greater number of deaths resulting from homicides, suicides, auto accidents and accidental injuries.

Sullivan said that the report, which relies on final statistics for 1986 and preliminary data for 1987, shows that the higher mortality figures in some areas were offset by a decreasing death rate for heart disease and stroke.

Sullivan attributed the progress in heart disease and strokes--down 31% for heart disease and 50% for strokes--to the 10-year-old campaign against smoking.

“It’s been effective,” he said. “The percentage of adult men who smoke is down to 32%; the percentage of women smokers down to 27% in 1987.”

The study listed AIDS as the 15th-leading cause of death in the country, but Feinleib said more recent data may suggest that it “may have gone up to 14th.” He also said that AIDS cases are “shifting slightly” away from homosexuals toward intravenous drug users and women.

“These data point us in the direction of expanding our agenda in the upcoming decade to include a greater focus on such critical health areas as prevention of AIDS, unintentional injuries, homicide and suicide,” Sullivan said.