The most recent North Carolina infant mortality numbers are causing a stir. The rate rose slightly in 2011, just one year after the state achieved its lowest rate ever.
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reported last week that the infant mortality rate reached 7.2 in 2011, up from 7.0 in 2010. This means 7.2 babies died for every 1,000 born alive.
The increase is just under 3 percent, but any upswing is unacceptable.
Data also shows eastern North Carolina’s infant mortality rate holding steady despite sharp increases in other regions. This is encouraging news for our area. Even so, our rate of 8.1 is still 12 percent higher than the state average.
Many factors contribute to infant mortality risk, including race, income and access to prenatal care.
The three major causes of infant deaths are: prematurity (less than 37 weeks) and low birth-weight (less than or equal to 5.5 pounds), birth defects and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
Major causes of premature birth and low birth-weight include:
• Smoking during pregnancy or exposure to second-hand smoke
• Malnutrition and poor vitamin intake during gestation
• Closely spaced subsequent pregnancies
• Sexually transmitted diseases
• Maternal drug or alcohol use
• Poor weight management (both obesity and underweight mothers are at risk)
We can mitigate many of these factors by ensuring adequate access to education and care for all mothers. We must continue to do more to increase SIDS awareness and safe sleep practices, invest in evidence-based early intervention health programs and teen pregnancy prevention, and improve access to care in rural, impoverished areas.
At ECU, maternal-fetal medicine specialists offer advanced care for high-risk pregnancies in our Regional Perinatal Center located in the outpatient center at the Brody School of Medicine.
In research, Dr. Elizabeth Jesse in the ECU College of Nursing has led studies that indicate a correlation between low-income women and preterm births or low birth weight. Earlier this year, she received a National Institute of Mental Health grant to expand her research into the effectiveness of a program http://blog.ecu.edu/sites/insightplus for low-income women in reducing their risk of prenatal, or antepartum, depression.
It’s clear we still have a lot of work to do. ECU and the Brody School of Medicine are committed to doing our part to help mothers in need, and to educating our students to address the factors contributing to this challenge in underserved areas.