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Zirpoli: Infant mortality rates, life expectancy reflect poorly on our healthcare system

If we want to make America great, we need to start paying attention to the state of our nation’s children and the overall health of our citizens. These two variables can be measured to a great degree by infant mortality and life expectancy rates.

The United States has a high infant mortality rate compared to other developed nations. While the U.S. infant mortality rate has been decreasing over the past several decades, we have not kept up with the rest of the developed world on this important measure.

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Countries with the lowest infant mortality rates have universal health care systems. Some people in the United States like to call this “socialism,” as if it is a dirty word. But socialism refers to efforts paid for by the community for the common good. Examples of socialism in the U.S. include our public school systems; local, state, and federal governments; community colleges, programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; our water and sewer systems, and our military forces, to name a few.

As we all contribute to a strong, publicly funded school system to educate our children, shouldn’t we all contribute to a strong, publicly funded healthcare system for our children? We do this for our elderly. Why not our children? Some nations pour most of their wealth into an ever-bigger military, while some pour most of their nation’s resources into their people. If you want to see the outcomes of these different philosophies, look at infant mortality and life expectancy rates around the world.

The average infant mortality rate in the United States is 5.9 deaths per 1,000 births. In more progressive states like Massachusetts and California, the rates are lower at 4.1 and 4.3 deaths per 1,000 live births, half the rates of more conservative states like Alabama and Mississippi with infant mortality rates of 8.7 and 8.9 deaths per 1,000 live births. The rate in Maryland is 6.6 deaths per 1,000 births.

Another measure of a nation’s greatness is life expectancy. A recent update of the world’s life expectancy, country by country, and published in the journal Lancet, celebrated Spain (life expectancy of 85.8 years) overtaking Japan (85.4 years) and Switzerland (85.2 years) by 2040. Meanwhile, the United States is predicted to drop from 43rd in 2016 to 64th by 2040 with an average life expectancy of 79.8 years, a full 6 years lower than Spain.

What is the primary driver for this decline in the United States? The availability — or should we say, unavailability — of health care in the United States compared to the rest of the world is a significant determinant of life expectancy. Spain, number one in life expectancy, is noted by the World Health Organization as having the seventh-best overall healthcare system in the world. They provide universal health care to their citizens funded by taxes. In America, many poor women do not receive appropriate, state-of-the-art prenatal care due to the lack of health insurance. This includes prenatal doctor visits and the ability to secure prenatal vitamins.

According to a study by Pew, the top 10 public healthcare systems in the world are found, in order, in Finland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Australia, and The United Kingdom. The U.S. was ranked 19th. While conservatives worry about saving the lives of the unborn, live infants are dying due to lack of appropriate prenatal and postnatal health care, which they have made worse by attacking elements of the Affordable Health Care Act. In an effort to make things even worse for millions of Americans, the Trump administration recently argued in federal court that the entire Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional. This includes ending protections for pre-existing conditions and allowing children under 26 to stay on their parents’ insurance plans.

Life expectancy studies look at national trends in diseases like diabetes, cancer rates, high blood pressure, tobacco and alcohol use, and so on. Drug-related deaths are also related to America’s drop in life expectancy. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 63,600 drug-related deaths in the U.S. in 2016 and 70,237 in 2017. Obesity in the U.S., higher than any time in our history, is another significant factor. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 40% of American adults and 19% of children are obese.

America is lagging behind other developed nations in caring for our infants and children. And we are becoming weaker on the measures that look at the quality of life of our citizens as exposed in our dropping life expectancy rates. These measures reflect poorly on the future quality of life for our children and grandchildren.

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