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Kansas Infant Mortality Rate Drops

Courtesy Jill Nelson

Kansas recorded its lowest-ever infant mortality rate in 2015, when 230 infants died before their first birthday, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

That put the state’s infant mortality rate at 5.9 for every 1,000 live births — a 28 percent improvement since 1996. Nationwide, the infant mortality rate in 2015 was six per 1,000, which is the target for the federal Healthy People 2020 program

“Together with partners and communities, we have significantly reduced infant mortality in our state through applied research and community intervention,” KDHE Secretary Susan Mosier said in a news release.

Those community interventions include efforts like one in Geary County called Delivering Change that promotes strategies such as breastfeeding, smoking cessation and safe sleep practices.

But Jill Nelson, program coordinator for Delivering Change, said it also connects Geary County families with the kind of resources that might not immediately come to mind when thinking about infant mortality.

“Medical providers have their area of expertise, but we know that it’s so much more than that — what they refer to as the social determinants of health, so things like access to food, and housing, and jobs,” she said. “Those things are vitally important to the families that we serve, and so knowing about how we can help families to connect to those resources is really what’s making a difference. It’s that collaborative approach that’s changing the way things look here in our community.”

Racial, ethnic disparities

Infant mortality in Kansas involves relatively small numbers at the county level, which can be misleading statistically. So the state compares a five-year average from 2006 through 2010 with the five-year average from 2011 through 2015.

Before the Delivering Change initiative started in 2011, the Geary County infant mortality rate was 10.4 per 1,000 live births. In fact, it was one of four counties statewide singled out for having unusually high rates of infant mortality. Now Geary County’s rate is down to 6.4 per 1,000 — still a little higher than the statewide figure, but down almost 40 percent.

The mortality rate for black babies in Geary County is 8.8 per 1,000 over the past five years. That’s down more than 40 percent from 15.3 per 1,000 for the previous five-year period, and significantly better than the statewide rate of 10.4 per 1,000.

Statewide, the infant mortality rate has gone down more for black Kansans than for whites, but white babies are still less likely to die in their first year of life. 

But the death rate for Hispanic infants in Kansas has gone up more than 35 percent over the last 20 years. KDHE said racial and ethnic disparities in Kansas infant mortality mirror national trends.

Efforts to further reduce the infant mortality rate in Kansas include a newly launched project with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called the Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System.

Data collection will start in 2017 and will focus on the factors that contribute to infant mortality and the experiences and behaviors before, during and after pregnancy that result in high-risk births. About 1,250 mothers will be involved.

Education — and some fun

For Nelson, the Geary County program to help other families is more than just a job — it’s a mission. She lost her son, Luke, to sudden infant death syndrome in 2006. One of the community-wide programs is named after him: Luke’s Community Baby Shower, a twice-a-year event for pregnant Geary County women.

It features information about safe sleep, prenatal health, and a wide range of community resources. And like a traditional baby shower, it includes snacks and punch—and everyone who stays to the end gets gifts for their baby.

“I look at my work and the things I do on a daily basis as a tribute to his (Luke’s) short life,” Nelson said. “The community baby shower is just a fun and beautiful event to educate the population about why it’s important to follow safety practices so you can have a healthy baby on the other end.”

Bryan Thompson is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.

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