Racial gap drives increase in infant-mortality rates

Racial gap drives increase in infant-mortality rates

The latest infant mortality data for Kansas show a substantial jump in Black infant mortality rates over 2019, blindsiding groups who work to increase infant survival rates across the state.

Rates of infant deaths among Black, non-Hispanic mothers increased 57.9% in 2020 over 2019 data. In general, infant mortality rates increased overall by 18.5% statewide in 2020 – not totally unexpected in the wake of COVID-19 and the access-to-care challenges the pandemic brought.

“This is upsetting enough, but the racial disparities are absolutely devastating,” said Cari Schmidt, PhD, director of the Center for Research for Infant Birth and Survival (CRIBS), a University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita program. “I won’t say we were surprised to see an increase in infant deaths, but I was horrified by the disparity in deaths, especially for the non-Hispanic Black infants.”

The data, compiled by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment in its annual summary of vital statistics for 2020, showed the infant death rate among Hispanic mothers increased 9.4%. There were 4.9 deaths per 1,000 births among white, non-Hispanic mothers in 2020, an increase of 19.5% over 2019.

In 2020, a total of 224 infant deaths statewide were recorded. But researchers warn overall, Kansas sees a relatively small number of occurrences annually, and, while 2020 saw a significant increase in infant deaths over 2019, it is consistent with the number of infant deaths seen annually between 2016 and 2018.

“Caution should be used in interpreting these changes due to the relatively small number of occur­rences and yearly fluctuations,” KDHE wrote in its report.

Still, even one preventable infant death is too many, advocates say. The CRIBS program was created to eradicate preventable infant death in Kansas by sup­porting education programs, research and evidence-based practices related to maternal and infant health.

Schmidt said the center is actively working on several initiatives to help close the racial gap and lower overall infant deaths, including partnerships to estab­lish its Baby Talk Prenatal Education Program in Black churches around town. CRIBS also is working on a research grant that would help the center better assess and understand the needs of pregnant women in the community.

“A lot of us can identify the needs, but we don’t do a good job of connecting women to the services that can address them,” she said. Physicians are vital to that, and Schmidt is actively working on better ways to help physicians connect their patients with services while promoting healthy choices during pregnancy.

“Whether it’s safe sleep, tobacco, substance screening or mental health, we want to make sure they’re doing it for every patient, every time.”