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Health of Black, Native moms key in fight to improve infant death disparities, experts say

December 11, 2021

The U.S. infant mortality rate continued its downward trend in 2019, but Black babies still died twice as often as white babies, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released this week.

Experts say the latest numbers showing little progress closing racial gaps in birth outcomes are more worrisome as the nation faces threats to maternal health care.

The South, Plains and Midwest saw significantly higher overall infant mortality rates than other parts of the country – the same regions policy analysts say are at risk from a potential Supreme Court ruling next year that could restrict abortion access and worsen birth outcomes.

The report comes on the heels of the first Maternal Health Day of Action by Vice President Kamala Harris. She called on the Senate Tuesday to support a bill that would dedicate $3 billion for maternal health initiatives.

Although overall infant mortality rates have continued to improve over the past 14 years, the disparity has persisted, with white babies’ rates improving faster than those of Black babies, widening the gap.

Shantel Smith talks about losing her baby during her pregnancy several years ago. The experience has forever changed Shantel's life as she tries to carry on now as a triple amputee due to complications during and following her delivery of her stillborn son, Jamal Glenn.

Shantel Smith talks about losing her baby during her pregnancy several years ago. The experience has forever changed Shantel’s life as she tries to carry on now as a triple amputee due to complications during and following her delivery of her stillborn son, Jamal Glenn.

Study:Black babies are more likely to survive when cared for by Black doctors

“Cumulative disadvantage throughout the life course is putting Black and Indigenous working people (and their babies) at greater risk for adverse outcomes,” said University of Minnesota’s Rachel Hardeman, a reproductive health equity researcher.

Close to 21,000 babies died in the U.S. in 2019, according to Wednesday’s CDC report, an overall rate of 5.58, down 3% from the year before. The overall rate has been steadily declining, the authors note, down 19% from the most recent high of 6.86 in 2005. The 2019 numbers represent an incremental improvement; the three previous years showed a very small decline.

Nationally, white babies died at a rate of 4.49 compared to Black babies, who died at a rate of 10.6 deaths per 1,000 births. The infant mortality rate for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders was 8.19;  American Indian and Alaska Native, 7.87; and Asians, 3.38.

The state with the lowest infant death rate was New Hampshire at roughly 3 per 1,000 births. Mississippi, which has persistently led the nation in infant deaths, again had the highest infant mortality rate of all states in 2019 at nearly nine deaths, nearly 50% higher than the U.S. rate.

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