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Community News

Area infant mortality rate causes concern

8/22/2013 - West Side Leader
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By Kathleen Folkerth

GREATER AKRON — As Summit County and state officials are putting an increased emphasis on what can be done to lower local infant mortality rates, they stress that the issue affects everyone, not just parents and families of children who have died before their first birthday.

“There’s some good research that looks at how you can tell a community’s social standing and social supports by the number of infants that die, and it’s a good indicator of overall health and quality of life,” said Donna Skoda, Summit County’s deputy health commissioner for planning. “If we can address infant mortality, it can affect other issues, improving life for all residents. It’s a huge predictor of the social circumstances under which residents live.”

Summit County Medical Examiner Dr. Lisa Kohler agrees.

“Fortune 500 companies look at infant mortality as a marker of a community,” she said. “They ask, ‘Do I really want to bring my company here and invest time and effort when I know I’ve got a not healthy workforce?’ It’s going to make some companies take pause before coming to a community and could delay economic development.”

Summit County officials have designated August as Summit Kids Month, an initiative to bring awareness to the importance of early childhood education, screenings and health and wellness. One of the issues getting attention as part of this is infant mortality.

Kohler said she attended the Infant Mortality Summit in Columbus last November and was inspired to get some kind of local effort together to address the issue in the Akron area.

According to the Ohio Collaborative to Prevent Infant Mortality, Ohio is ranked 11th in the nation in terms of having the worst infant mortality rate (IMR), which is defined as the number of live-born babies who die within their first year per thousand births. Ohio’s IMR, from 2010 statistics, is 7.7, while the national rate is 6.14.

Locally, Summit County Child and Family Health Services (CFHS) reports that the county’s average IMR for the years 2000-09 was 7.2. When breaking data down further into census clusters, the IMR ranges from 1.5 to 14.3 in Summit County, with Central Akron (14.3) and West Akron (12.1) seeing the highest numbers.

Skoda said in Summit County, premature births seem to be the reason for many cases of infant deaths. Out of the 484 infant deaths from 2000 to 2009, 229 were attributed to prematurity, she said.

Chief among the concerns of health officials is the disparity in rates when race is considered.

“We’re really disturbed by these numbers, especially the disparity between black and white,” Skoda said.

The IMR for non-Hispanic blacks in Summit County is 14.0, while it’s 5.7 for non-Hispanic whites.

“The racial factor is quite alarming,” said County Councilwoman Tamela Lee (D-District 5), of West Akron. “The African-American rate is more than double. In the central area of the county, in Akron, is the highest incidence of infant mortality, and that happens to be where we have the poorest and largest concentration of minority residents.”

After Kohler attended the Columbus summit, she worked with CFHS Project Director Sherry Blair to organize a Summit County Infant Mortality Summit, which took place June 6 at the John S. Knight Center. Skoda said more than 450 people attended the all-day event to hear speakers and brainstorm on what could be done locally to address the issue.

In late July, a group of Summit County representatives, including Lee and fellow County Council member Paula Prentice (D-District 8), headed to Columbus for special training from the Ohio Institute for Equity on Birth Outcomes.

Lee said she has long been interested in the topic of child and maternal health. When she began looking into the issue of infant mortality, she was shocked at what she found, she said.

“Northeast Ohio is a virtual medical mecca in the country and world, but we here in Summit County have an infant mortality rate equal to a Third World country,” Lee said of the rate in parts of the county. “I’ve been having conversations since this spring with community leaders, pastors and other social service agencies in the area to bring awareness that we have a problem. No one would think we have a problem like this.”

Skoda said local officials plan to look into steps taken in other communities to reduce the number of infant deaths. California has been successful in seeing its numbers decrease, she said, and Lee said she has heard about efforts that Kalamazoo, Mich., undertook to address its numbers.

Skoda said she believes another Infant Mortality Summit could take place in the county in 2014 so the parties involved can gather and share what has been learned this year as they prepare to move forward to implement specific strategies. In the meantime, she and others involved in the issue said all residents can help in the effort to improve outcomes for the youngest members of society.

“If you know someone who is pregnant, make sure they are getting what they need,” Skoda said.

Added Lee, “This is going to be an issue we hope everyone will educate themselves on.”

More information about the effort is available from Summit County Public Health at 330-923-4891. 

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