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The High Cost of Infant Mortality

The United States not only has too many babies who die unnecessarily each year, it also has alarmingly higher death rates for black infants than for white infants. The disparity is directly linked to poverty and thus to the fact that too often black women receive little or no medical attention while they are pregnant. Their babies also have a higher risk of being born addicted to drugs. These are life-threatening conditions that can be attacked, but government at all levels must do more to help save all the children.

Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan has just issued a new report showing that for each 1,000 live births in the United States, 18 black infants die while about 9 white babies die. These figures come as no surprise to people who have been analyzing the situation in California, where studies show that black infants are also at greater risk of being born weighing too little to thrive than are white infants. These low birth-weight babies are the most likely to die. Even if they survive, they may have suffered crippling physical or mental health problems.

Women who get proper health care while they are pregnant are far less likely to give birth prematurely, and it is the premature babies who weigh too little. But too many women get little or no medical attention because they either don’t know that they should see a doctor or they cannot afford to do so. If a woman has some special problem--like drug or alcohol abuse or hypertension, a doctor can give advice or treatment that may help her carry her baby longer and thus avoid lower birth weights and other serious problems.

California has been making steady efforts to get more impoverished pregnant women into doctors’ offices and clinics. Last year the Legislature passed and the governor signed a measure expanding eligibility limits for state-financed prenatal care. The state will be better able to ensure that women know about their eligibility once it hires someone to run the maternal and child-health programs; the vacancy has existed for far too many months.

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More federal money than it is able to spend comes to the state now to help pay for better prenatal care. Last fiscal year, for example, $10.5 million was carried over for use this year. The problem is that the state doesn’t always know how much federal money it will receive and so can’t distribute it quickly and properly. It would help if the Legislature approved some priorities ahead of time so that the Department of Health Services can move promptly once it does get the federal money.

As attentive as California has been to this problem, it clearly needs to do more to ensure the survival of more babies. The federal report issued earlier this month is a welcome sign that the national government intends to pay more attention to this critical problem as well. The more different directions from which the problem is attacked, the sooner the death rate will be reduced for white and black infants alike.


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