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New Report Uncovers Baffling — and Disturbing — Trend: Black Infant Mortality Rates Evened Out, Then Rose

The mortality rate among Black infants increased from 11.4 to 11.7 per 1,000 births between 2014 and 2015. (Photo by Kabilan Subramanian)

Despite years of progress, the gap in infant mortality between Black and white babies in the U.S. appears to be widening yet again, leaving researchers baffled.

A recent report published in JAMA Pediatrics on Monday, July 3, shows that while mortality rates for white babies have steadily declined, mortality rates among Black babies hit a plateau and rose again between 2014 and 2015. Pulling data from a 2017 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that, at the time, concluded that the U.S. infant mortality rate had dropped 15 percent, researchers uncovered a questionable shift when they reviewed the numbers based on race.

Historically, the mortality rate among Black babies has been significantly higher than that of their white counterparts due to several factors including socioeconomic status, access to basic health care and, of course, racial heritage. However, things started to look up in 2005 when the Black infant mortality rate fell from from 14.3 to 11.6 per 1,000 births. The rates then hit a plateau before rising from 11.4 to 11.7 per 1,000 births between 2014 and 2015, the report showed.

“When we see a year in which things are starting to get worse again, that’s kind of a canary in the coal mine — that is kind of a warning sign,” lead researcher and McGill University professor Jay Kaufman told medical news site STAT.

“The end of this period of improvement is something that’s very alarming,” Kaufman added.

Meanwhile, among white infants, the mortality rate decreased from 5.7 to 4.8 per 1,000 births from 2005 to 2015. The disparate findings revealed slowed progress in diminishing infant mortality among Black babies, which ultimately resulted in a significant hike in the overall inequality in mortality between Black and white babies, researchers concluded.

While reviewing trends in the specific cause of death among both groups, researchers also found that Black babies were four times more likely to die from complications associated with premature birth. Moreover, rates related to sudden infant death syndrome and congenital malformations increased for Black infants between 2014 and 2015.

Researchers attributed a number of factors to the racial disparities discussed in the report. One of them was the fact that nonwhite women have less access to prenatal and postnatal care and often have trouble connecting with doctors for basic preventative health services. Thus, African-American women are far more likely to suffer from chronic medical diseases that can affect pregnancy, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

Martha Hargraves, a social policy researcher retired from the University of Texas who did not contribute to the study, told STAT that the infant mortality gap in the U.S. has become a well-known issue and that research should now focus on what she dubs “the whole environment of the mother of the infant.”

“We need a combination of interventions that deal with the everyday lives of people,” Hargraves said. “A more comprehensive approach to the issue.

“We need a medical intervention, we need a social-contextual intervention and we need an empowerment intervention. Those kinds of interventions take time, but they can make all the difference in folks’ everyday lives.”

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