BY JENNIFER FERRIS Despite rapidly advancing technology, an increase in the number of hospitals, and an almost limitless amount of health information, more infants die in their first year of life in North Carolina than in Russia, Taiwan or Cuba.
Of every 1,000 births in eastern North Carolina’s Pasquotank County, more than 20 infants will die, a death rate that is higher than in the Dominican Republic or Turkey. Women in Halifax, Rockingham, and Cherokee counties are more than twice as likely to lose their infants in their first year of life than the United State average.
These numbers are staggering, and according to a recent report, in the last year North Carolina’s infant mortality rate actually increased, moving from a statewide average of 7 deaths per 1,000 births to 7.4.
Depressingly, this isn’t even the full picture. Black mothers in North Carolina are twice as likely as their peers to lose an infant, with a high number of pregnancies to black mothers ending prematurely or with other complications. Historically access to healthcare in the state’s rural counties has been dismal, with women of color in these regions often facing a higher risk of health problems than their urban peers.
Action for Children, a statewide organization that focuses on the health of children, said in a report that this increasing rate indicates a deficiency of whole-life medical care for women and their families.
According to the report, “Infant mortality reflects maternal health access to medical care and preventative services as well as the societal or environmental conditions in which people live.”
The organization has called on the North Carolina General Assembly to accept federal funds to expand Medicaid, a move that they say would give comprehensive health insurance to 178,000 women of childbearing age. In the last legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill rejecting the expansion funds, after voicing general objections to the program and saying that it would be too expensive in the long run.
Although North Carolina currently provides Medicaid for low income pregnant women and their children, this benefit ends just after birth. An increasing number of studies have shown that infant health is not just determined by the nine months prior to birth, but the lifetime health of the mother. More than 22% of North Carolina women are currently uninsured and many more will face large periods of time in their lives without healthcare coverage.
While many organizations are lobbying the legislature to fund more health care for more families, others are making a difference in the rural delivery rooms and maternity wards. The Nurse-Family Partnership of North Carolina says they decrease infant mortality by providing one-on-one support to needy mothers.
By working with first-time mothers in 17 of North Carolina’s highest risk counties, this group helps prevent SIDS and provides education and assistance that decreases the rate of premature births preventable illness.
NC Healthy Start helps teen mothers quit smoking, apply for Medicaid, and plan for childcare. More localized programs such as the Forsyth County Infant Mortality Reduction Coalition educate families in their community about the risks of parental smoking and drug use and shaken baby syndrome.
But despite the hard work of these organizations, infant death rates continue to increase. Forsyth County’s rate went up to 10.2 deaths per 1,000 live births last year. The recent Action for Children Report warns that until the state focuses on making sure each woman has access to the health care she needs, these rates may continue to increase.
“Healthy infancy in childhood begins with healthy mothers,” researcher Laila Bell wrote in the report. “So women’s health before, during and between pregnancies is a strong predictor of the survival and long-term health of their newborns.”
Many organizations are still petitioning the general assembly to increase Medicaid to more needy families. You can join forces with them, or email your representative to let them know that you believe in protecting women and their infants, and that you want North Carolina women to have the same health benefits and chances of healthy births as women in other states, where lawmakers have accepted the federal funds.