July 2, 2016

Intermittent clouds

Ohio infant mortality rate among worst in U.S.

It’s the kind of statistic that can’t be explained even though program after program is aimed at targeting it at the local and state levels.

Simply put, babies born in Ohio are at a higher risk of not seeing their first birthday than most other states.

State officials, in a recently released report, charts Ohio’s infant-mortality rate as one of the worst in the nation. While the national rate dropped by 11 percent from 2000-10, it increased 3 percent in Ohio over that period, according to state numbers.

“No matter how we slice this problem, it’s significant,” said state Sen. Shannon Jones, R-Springboro, who also chairs the Medicaid, Health and Human Services Committee. “It’s way worse than the national average.”

Jones said she plans to bring the issue to Senate health discussions as well as local health leaders and the public so lawmakers can better understand the problem.

The infant-mortality rate looks at any death of an infant under the age of 1. The Ohio Department of Health said the top causes of infant deaths include low birth weight, birth defects and sudden infant death syndrome.

Katy Tobel, of the Sudden Infant Death Network of Ohio, said legislators can help the most by providing the necessary funding for a stronger education campaign.

“Lack of funding limits what you can do, where you can go and the people you can reach,” she said.

Tobel, a Brunswick resident, started her work with the organization in 1998 after her son died from SIDS when he was just shy of 5 months old.

“I joined because I initially needed the support for myself and then I stayed because I wanted to be a support to others,” she said. “I’m not surprised to hear Ohio still remains high on infant mortality. There are so many things that play into it from education to race to economics.”

Tobel said the main focus of the SID Network of Ohio, the only organization solely geared toward decreasing infant deaths related to SIDS in the state, is to fundraise and purchase a simple article of clothing that carries a strong message.

“We want to make sure that every baby born in the state receives an onesie with the message ‘back to sleep is best,’ ” Tobel said. “It has been proven that the safest way for a baby to sleep is on its back in a crib that has nothing in it. No blankets, stuffed animals or bumper pads.”

Dr. Ted Wymyslo, the state health department director, said it’s a community problem and that many deaths can be prevented by improving health even before conception.

On Tuesday, Wymyslo announced a new partnership among local health departments, the state department and CityMatCH, an organization that connects health agencies to solve problems. It will focus on trying to halt the high mortality rates and address the widening gap between white and black rates.

The state’s infant-mortality rate is 7.7 deaths per 1,000 births, putting Ohio 48th in the nation. The rate for black babies is 49th. The partnership allows Ohio’s urban centers to tap national experts and a wealth of information about the issue, Wymyslo said.

“There’s no reason to justify that if you’re a black infant born in Ohio, you have 2.5 times the risk of dying before your birthday than if you were a white infant born in Ohio,” he said.

The unexpected nature of losing a child to SIDS often will cause a family to shut down and not want to talk about their loss, said Imam Paul Hasan of Interfaith Ministries in Lorain.

He speaks from experience. In October 2012, his grandson, then just 5 weeks old, slid between a couch and couch cushion at his home and suffocated. Lorain County Coroner Dr. Stephen Evans ruled the cause of death as sudden infant death syndrome from an unsafe sleep position.

“It’s a tragic thing to happen to a family, to lose a loved one like that,” Hasan said. “It affects the whole family.”

Hasan, who often tells the people he ministers to guard their children and be constantly aware of where they are, said more education and information needs to flow into the community.

“It’s hard to talk about, but we have to if we want this to stop,” he said.

State health officials said a new effort will focus on trying to improve the infant-mortality rate.

“With seven medical schools, nursing schools, medical-research facilities and a variety of high-quality hospitals, “it’s a surprise to everyone that our outcomes really aren’t indicative of the capability we have in our delivery system,” Wymyslo said. “This is not just a problem of delivery rooms.”

Morog said Elyria has chosen to tackle the problem from pregnancy to toddlerhood by embracing programs like the Ohio Infant Mortality Reduction Initiative and Help Me Grow.

The first deals almost exclusively with black women from the time of pregnancy to when their children are 2 years old and incorporates education with monthly home visits.

The Help Me Grow program is for any pregnant woman and follows her until a child is 3. It mainly is focused on making sure children hit developmental benchmarks.

“We want to make sure these mothers have access to all available resources in the community,” Morog said. “We don’t want to single out a group, but statistics are telling us we need a more targeted education campaign.”

The success of the Ohio Infant Mortality Reduction Initiative, in existence in Elyria for more than 10 years, is marked with each celebrated birthday for a child. There are 50 families enrolled in the program.

“And, we haven’t had an infant death in at least the last three years of the women who have been in the program,” Morog said. “That’s how we know it works.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story. Contact reporter Lisa Roberson at (440) 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.