By the turn of the century, black babies will be three times more likely to die by their first birthdays as white babies, federal health officials said Friday.
From 1980 to 1991, the most recent year for which data is available, the rate of black infant deaths dropped nearly 21%, from 22.2 to 17.6 per 1,000 births, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.
The death rate for white babies fell 33%, from 10.9 to 7.3 per 1,000, the CDC said in its weekly report.
Overall, the U.S. infant mortality rate was 8.9 per 1,000 births in 1991, down 29.4% from 12.6 in 1980, the CDC said. The report did not break the figures down into other groups.
Just 24 years ago, the ratio of black infant mortality to whites was 2 to 1, said Dr. David Satcher, the CDC director. Since then, the disparity has grown, despite the ongoing drop in the overall rate.
Researchers must examine housing, income, stress and other factors as contributing to very low birth weight, said CDC epidemiologist Dr. Solomon Iyasu.
Most of the gap results from an increase in the number of very low birth weights among black newborns, Iyasu said. A very low birth weight is 3 pounds, 4 ounces or less.
In 1980, the proportion of white babies with very low birth weight was 0.9%, compared with 2.5% of black newborns. By 1991, the proportion grew to 0.96% for whites and 2.95% for blacks, Iyasu said.
Stephen Thomas, the director of Emory University’s Minority Health Research Laboratory, said the persistent gap between whites and blacks is a travesty.
He said that cuts in federal public health programs that provided prenatal visits for people in the black community were to blame.
Federal health officials expect to meet their goal of decreasing the overall infant mortality rate to 7 per 1,000 by the year 2000. But the goal of lowering the black rate to 11 by the same year most likely will not be met, Iyasu said.
The white infant mortality rate is expected to decrease to 5 per 1,000 by then, with the black rate falling to about 14 per 1,000, officials said.