Momentum must continue to combat infant mortality

Newly released data from the Ohio Department of Health provide guarded optimism that the Buckeye State and the Mahoning Valley at last may be gaining ground in lessening our unacceptably high rates of infant mortality.

Some trends for the Valley are particularly encouraging. The ODH report titled “2016 Ohio Infant Mortality Data: General Findings” shows an overall 42 percent decline in Mahoning County in the number of deaths of babies younger than 1 year old from 26 in 2015 to 15 in 2016.

The county’s official infant mortality rate (the number of babies who die in their first year of life per 1,000 live births) tumbled from a high of 11.0 in 2015 to 6.0 last year. That places it well below the new state average of 7.4.

Trumbull County also showed impressive gains. Its IMR dropped from 9.6 in 2015 to 7.6 percent last year.

In addition, there is reason for hope on other fronts. For example, last year Mahoning County witnessed a decrease in the proportion of black infants with low birth weight, a decrease in the overall proportion of women with unhealthy pregnancy intervals and a reduction in the number of births to teen moms.


Unfortunately, however, not all of the findings in the state report are as promising. For example, statewide the infant mortality rate actually edged upward from 7.2 in 2015 to 7.4 in 2016. The new data for black infants show those babies are dying at nearly three times the rate of white infants.

In the Mahoning Valley, the more reliable five-year data average covering 2012 through 2016 show IMRs for Mahoning and Trumbull counties at 8.6 and 7.4 respectively, still far above the national rate of 5 and far too high for our community to tolerate.

That means ongoing campaigns and initiatives designed to lessen the risk of premature deaths of babies cannot afford to slow down or retreat. To achieve needed additional success, additional advocacy and action remain crucial.

To its credit, our state government has demonstrated effective leadership in dealing with this crisis. Shortly after taking office, Republican Gov. John R. Kasich declared war on infant mortality:

“Ohio has one of the worst infant- mortality rates in the nation, and that is simply unacceptable,” he said in 2012.

Among the state projects designed to make a dent in high IMRs have been:

A program of the ODH and the Ohio Department of Medicaid that increases access to progesterone to women at risk for preterm births. That’s when rates of infant mortality are highest. The drug has been proven to reduce the risk of birth before 32 weeks of pregnancy.

Aggressive promotion by state health leaders of the Baby and Me – Tobacco Free model to reduce smoking among women during pregnancy, another prime risk factor for infant mortality. Such a program is particularly valuable in Mahoning County, where 18.3 percent of all mothers smoked during the third trimester of their pregnancy in 2016, according to the ODH report.

A Life Plan program given to 30,000 women and 5,000 men per year in the state aimed at developing a structured format for women and men to think about life goals and their preferences about whether and when to have children. The program has shown success in helping reduce pregnancies among women at greatest risk for preterm birth.

Establishment of Ohio Equity Institute teams in major metropolitan areas across the state. They are designed to implement the Ohio Perinatal Quality Collaborative’s evidence-based strategies to maintain healthy behaviors. An equity team is scheduled to set up shop in the Youngstown-Warren area in 2018, according to Friday’s report.

Speaking of the local front, community campaigns and structured programs to battle infant mortality have strengthened greatly in our region in recent years. City and county health departments, private health agencies, hospitals, community groups and social-service agencies in our region have implemented awareness campaigns and support services.

Prime among them has been the Mahoning Youngstown Infant Mortality Coalition, which promotes safe sleeping habits for infants and empowers at-risk mothers to access health agencies and community resources.

Clearly, some of the improvements heralded in the new state report serve as solid indicators that such programs and initiatives are making a difference. They and others need to stay the course to increase the quantity and quality of life for the youngest and most vulnerable of Ohioans.

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