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Area infant mortality rate causes concern

8/22/2013 - South 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.

“It’s a crime that our rates are as high as they are in our state and in our county, but it’s just important that we start looking at the health of these babies,” said County Councilwoman Paula Prentice (D-District 8), of Green. “We want to produce better citizens.”

Kohler said she attended the Ohio Infant Mortality Summit in Columbus last November and it inspired her 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 at the number of live-born babies that 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 2000-2009 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 and West Akron 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.

IMRs 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 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 Prentice and Lee, headed to Columbus for special training from the Ohio Equity Institute on Infant Mortality.

Prentice said she and the other participants heard from some speakers that minorities are often affected by a lack of access to health care and sometimes are treated differently because of their race by health care providers.

“It’s very important to me and to all of us that we don’t have this population struggling the way they are,” Prentice said.

She added the next steps would include the formation of a task force.

“We want to start with a small group and try to take steps that are slow enough to set goals that are realistic,” Prentice said. “We’re still gathering ourselves together and finding our direction. We hope that by the end of the year we have a solid plan and can start moving forward.”

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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