The death rate for black infants is increasing in the U.S. despite progress in reducing infant deaths in general, according to a study published Monday in a scholarly journal.
From 2014 to 2015, the infant mortality rate for black babies increased from 11.4 to 11.7 per 1,000 births after hitting a plateau that followed a decrease in rates coinciding with national standards.
The study, “Differences in U.S. Infant Mortality Rates Among Black and White Babies,” was conducted by the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics, and Occupational Health at McGill University in Canada, which examined data from the National Vital Statistics System.
The study’s findings were published Monday as a research letter in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics.
“No single cause appears solely responsible for the recent increase in black infant mortality, and in many instances, some arbitrariness exists in the single cause that is assigned,” the researchers say.
From 2005 to 2012, the black infant mortality rate was on the decline — from 14.3 fatalities to 11.6 per 1,000 live births. This was consistent with declining infant mortality rates in general, although large disparities in death rates among black babies compared with white babies already had been established.
For white babies, infant mortality rates declined from 5.7 deaths to 4.8 per 1,000 live births from 2005 to 2015.
The research follows data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in May that showed a 15 percent decrease in infant mortality rates nationwide. However, the report noted that the highest mortality rates remained among black infants and American Indian or Alaska Native — 10.93 and 7.59 in 2014, respectively.
Dr. Paul Jarris, chief medical officer of the nonprofit March of Dimes, which advocates for the health of women and children, said the most recent statistics are precursors for more startling numbers emerging for 2016 and 2017: Infant mortality is rising across racial divides, further cementing the dubious standing of the U.S. as a developed nation with infant and maternal care.
“This is just one more wake-up call. We should not accept the fact that we have such a high infant mortality rate in this country. It doesn’t have to be that way,” Dr. Jarris told The Washington Times. “We shouldn’t accept the fact that there are such inequities. It does not have to be that way either, and it’s really up to us to take the issue on and change it and improve the health for mothers and babies.”
According to 2015 data from the World Bank, the U.S. infant mortality rate is 6 per 1,000 live births, which puts the country on par with Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, Serbia, the Slovak Republic, and Antigua and Barbuda. About 144 other countries — most in Africa — have higher infant mortality rates.
Health officials are united in the explanation that preterm birth (delivery before 37 weeks) is the leading cause of infant mortality. Ensuring that babies reach full term in the womb decreases the chance for other causes of infant mortality. The top four are low birth weight, congenital malformations, sudden infant death syndrome and maternal complications.
The authors noted that the preterm birthrate for black babies is 50 percent higher than it is for white babies.
Dr. Jarris said discussions in public health and sociology focus on how black women are subject to increased and continuous levels of stress, which leads to a number of negative health consequences. Poverty, a lack of education, limited job opportunities, high crime rates and racism contribute to higher stress and anxiety levels.
“People living in those conditions are subject to a lot of stress, allopathic load — their adrenaline — your fight-or-flight response, if you will,” Dr. Jarris said. “In addition, people face the trauma of daily discrimination, and that may be anything from the jobs they’re not given access to or outright discrimination in terms of service or racial comments. And that again — that alertness — that’s called microtrauma. It causes more inflammation, causes higher blood pressure and things that are associated with poor health outcomes.”