Maryland's infant mortality rate drops to lowest level on record

After moving aggressively in recent years to make a dent in Maryland's stubbornly high infant mortality rate, city and state officials plan to announce Wednesday a significant drop, to the lowest level on record.

Data from the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene show a drop to 6.7 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2010. That's a 7 percent drop from the year before, a 16 percent drop from two years before and the lowest rate since recording began in the 1940s.

"It's definitely going in the right direction," said Frances B. Phillips, deputy secretary of the state health department. "We've got two years in a row of declines for the first time in a while."

Phillips warned that the numbers bounce up and down from year to year, and the state is not declaring "mission accomplished," especially considering the state's poor standing nationally. Maryland is a relatively wealthy state, but its pockets of poverty and racial disparities mean Baltimore City and some counties have kept the rate relatively high, Phillips said.

"It's a very sustained problem we need to dig out from," she said.

According to national data for 2009, the latest year available, the U.S. average was 6.4 deaths per 1,000 live births, putting Maryland in the bottom tier with the District of Columbia and several Southern states. Infant mortality is defined as a death within the first year.

The numbers remain particularly daunting in Baltimore and Prince George's County, which have large African-American populations, and two rural Eastern Shore counties, Dorchester and Somerset. All had rates ranging from 9.1 to 16.5 deaths per 1,000 births on average between 2005 and 2009.

State data show that in 2010, the rates among black infants remain almost three times as high as among white infants: 4.1 deaths per 1,000 births among white infants versus 11.8 deaths among black infants. The gap closed a bit last year because the rate among black babies dropped while the rate among white babies stayed the same.

But officials say that a three-year campaign to tackle the rate appears to be on track. Officials including Gov. Martin O'Malley, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, state Health Secretary Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein and Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot will present the data during a news conference Wednesday.

Specifically, Barbot said the numbers show that a citywide initiative called B'more for Healthy Babies appears to be taking hold. The initial phase of that campaign, launched in 2009, encourages parents to put their infants to sleep on their backs alone in a crib to cut down on sudden infant death syndrome.

Barbot said in Baltimore, the numbers had been increasing — 112 infant deaths in 2007, 120 in 2008 and 128 in 2009. But in 2010, there were 98, with much of the drop from lower SIDS deaths.

"It gives me confidence that the work we're doing through B'more for Healthy Babies is starting to pay off," she said. "But one year does not a trend make. We have a lot of work ahead of us."

The city program was funded with a $3 million grant over three years by CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, which has committed almost $9 million for programs and organizations benefiting maternal and infant health from 2009 to 2011 in Maryland, Northern Virginia and Washington.

CareFirst Chief Executive Officer Chester "Chet" Burrell said that so far, he's pleased with the investment.

"It's encouraging to see positive movement on measures that are such an important gauge of community health," he said. "Our goal in supporting B'more for Healthy Babies and other programs regionwide that focus on maternal and child health is to achieve measurable improvements in health status, and this is certainly a step in the right direction."

The next phase of the campaign — which includes bus shelter advertisements, videos played in maternity wards at hospitals and jury rooms, and other outreach — is slated for the fall and will concentrate on healthy pregnancies by encouraging parents to quit smoking, check for hypertension and take other steps.

Gena O'Keefe of the Family League of Baltimore City, which has worked with the insurer, the city and other groups on the campaign, was also pleased with news of lower infant mortality rates. But she also stopped short of declaring victory or even taking credit.

"It's a significant drop, and it's great," she said. "The numbers are going in the right direction. We're cautiously optimistic as we keep working."

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