City needs to take further steps to confront high infant mortality rates

Few events are more tragic for a family than the death of a young child. For too many Central Ohio families, this tragedy is a reality.

In the first three months of 2018, 40 Franklin County infants lost their lives. This puts the Franklin County infant mortality rate at roughly nine deaths for 1,000 births, more than 50 percent higher than the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services goal of six deaths for 1,000 births.

Part of the problem is that births are happening too early and too many babies are being born at low weight in Central Ohio. Of the babies born in the first three months of 2018 in Franklin County, almost 11 percent were preterm, one-third higher than March of Dimes' 2020 goals. Additionally, more than nine percent were low birth weight, one-sixth higher than U.S. Department of Health and Human Services goals.

Infant mortality is especially prevalent among black families. While only a third of births in the first three months of 2018 were to black families, these accounted for more than half of the infant deaths. A black infant is two-and-a-half times more likely to die in Franklin County than a white infant.

Data available from the City of Columbus Department of Public Health shows that infant mortality rates have shown no significant decline over the past seven years of available data, averaging more than eight deaths per 1,000 births over that time span. Similarly, the proportion of deaths happening among black infants has remained steady at half of all infant deaths.

In 2014, Mayor Andrew Ginther created the Greater Columbus Infant Mortality Task Force in response to Franklin County's high infant mortality rates, and the CelebrateOne coalition was formed to carry out the task force's recommendations, with an aim of reducing the infant mortality rate by 40 percent within six years. Looking at the numbers, the task force and CelebrateOne have a long way to go to meet their 2020 goals.

There has been a slight yet statistically significant decline in preterm deaths over the past seven years, with 12 percent of infants born preterm in 2011 versus 11 percent of infants born preterm today. Low birth weight rates have been steady and high, though, at nine percent of infants born at low birth weight over the same time period.

Infant mortality is preventable, and the city can do more to assist families. One of the strongest tools policymakers have to reduce infant mortality is home visiting.

Home visiting is a program where trained professionals regularly visit the homes of pregnant and new mothers to help them improve family health and provide better opportunities for their children. Home visitors support preventive and prenatal health, assist mothers with training in breastfeeding and caring for children, help parents understand child-development milestones, promote positive parenting techniques and work with mothers to set and achieve educational and career goals.

Home visiting has been rigorously evaluated and shown to improve child health, school readiness, parenting practices and even parental educational attainment and income. Notably, a study of Cincinnati home visiting programs published by the American Academy of Pediatrics showed that families that do not receive home-visiting services are two-and-a-half times more likely to have their infant die than those who receive home visiting services.

Columbus should invest in more home-visiting services for its residents in order to reduce the epidemic of infant mortality.