The death of an infant rips at a family’s heart, turning great expectations into enduring grief. But in Wichita and Kansas, infant mortality is a public health problem as well as a private tragedy because death rates exceed the national average – demanding more attention, study and action.
The Eagle’s Kelsey Ryan explored the issue last week, shedding light on the loss and “what ifs” that follow the unexpected and sometimes inexplicable death of a baby.
The statistics are hard to believe – especially from the perspective of Wichita, the health care hub that is Kansas’ largest city. But they are undeniable.
The infant-mortality rate was 6.3 per 1,000 live births in Kansas last year – an improvement from the 8.7 rate in 1993 and 7 rate in 2009 but still higher than the 5.9 estimate for 2013 in the United States as a whole. Prematurity or low birthweight was the leading underlying cause of such deaths in Kansas in 2012, followed by congenital anomalies and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or suffocation in bed.
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Where the state’s numbers really sound the alarm is among African-Americans (14.2 per 1,000 live births) and Hispanics (8.6).
Sedgwick County’s 7.4 rate for 2008-12 also stands out, as do rural rates. Experts say that even in areas with major health facilities, women often don’t know how to access care.
According to Kansas Department of Health and Environment statistics, more than 2,100 women whose babies were among the total 40,000 live births last year in Kansas didn’t seek prenatal care until they were at least six months’ pregnant, while more than 350 women had no such care before giving birth. More than 5,400 pregnant women smoked at some point during their pregnancy – increasing the risk of low birthweight or premature birth.
For all of the valid criticisms of the Affordable Care Act, it holds the promise of curbing infant deaths nationally. The ACA’s guaranteed health benefits include a minimum standard of prenatal care. That raises the hope that more pregnant women will seek care earlier and regularly, reducing the risk factors that can lead to premature birth or low birthweight. Better access to health care overall also could mean better nutrition and health before women become pregnant, reducing the risk of maternal complications related to diabetes and the like, and more follow-up care after childbirth.
More awareness about safe sleeping for new babies also can make a difference.
The Kansas Infant Death and SIDS Network and Sedgwick County’s Healthy Babies program are among the local resources fighting to reduce infant mortality, while panels at the state and local level continue to review each case and seek new strategies.
Leaders in the state and community need to continue to track the trends and connect would-be mothers to these and other resources, so fewer families must learn what it’s like to lose a baby before that first birthday.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman