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Our Views: Health officials wise to focus on infant deaths

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February 7, 2014

Infant mortality among Rock County’s African-Americans is a serious concern, and it’s good to see health officials giving it serious attention.

Black babies die at a rate of 17 per 1,000 births in Beloit, compared to 14 statewide. Before Janesville shrugs this off as a Beloit problem, consider this: The death rate among African-American infants is much higher in Janesville—33 out of every 1,000 born.

Those are five-year rolling averages. While the number of births among blacks might be much lower in Janesville, the death rate here is startling and worth extra attention.

Babies die because of premature births or birth defects. Others die from injuries or unsafe sleeping arrangements, Janet Zoellner, the county’s public health nursing director, told Anna Marie Lux in Tuesday’s Gazette.

In recent years, Milwaukee started a “Sleep Safe” campaign to educate mothers about sleeping risks. At least 10 babies died in Milwaukee in 2011 because infants were either sleeping with others or in unsafe sleeping environments. A mother can unwittingly suffocate her baby while sleeping with the child. The problem isn’t Milwaukee’s alone. Rock County officials blamed the practice for nine infant deaths from 2005 to 2008.

Officials recommend that babies sleep on their backs and near parents but not in the same beds, and without stuffed animals, fluffy bumper pads or pillows. Place an infant on a firm surface, never on a couch, chair or waterbed. If a blanket is needed, tuck it under the mattress so it doesn’t extend above the infant’s waist.

Premature births are another concern in the African-American community, Zoellner told Lux. Babies with low birth weights often face complications.

Low birth-weight babies are among issues that led Rock County to slip from 58th to 62nd out of 72 counties in statewide health rankings released last March. The UW Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation conduct the annual analysis.

Even college-educated African-American mothers are at higher risk of premature births than are college-educated white mothers. Still, social issues in Beloit that can contribute to infant deaths include unsafe neighborhoods, high rates of teen pregnancy, unemployment and poverty and single-parent households.

One reason the infant death rate might be higher in Janesville, however, is because officials have been focusing on our smaller sister city for several years, educating women and empowering families to become advocates of their own health.

Lisa Jackson, who coordinates the Beloit Lifecourse Initiative for Healthy Families, presented a program Thursday at UW-Rock County to explain infant mortality and share what Beloit is doing to address it. The Diversity Action Team of Rock County deserves credit for sponsoring the talk.

The county health department is wise to use a small grant from the Wisconsin Partnership Program to work with Beloit’s program and review several deaths in hopes of gaining more insight into the causes.

If you’re an expectant mother or if someone in your family is pregnant and you missed Thursday’s program, it’s not too late to gain insight or assistance. Zoellner said many Rock County organizations offer free services to help women and families get through pregnancy and the critical stages of early infancy. Don’t hesitate to call.

Coming Sunday: How results of a recent unscientific survey by the Sustainable Janesville Committee tie into Rock County’s poor state health ranking.



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