COLUMBUS -- The infant mortality rate in Ohio is among the worst in the nation and Ohio Health Department officials announced Tuesday they will help nine cities work to lower their rates during the next three years.
Ohio ranks 48th for its infant mortality rate and 49th for mortality rates among black babies. Department Director Ted Wymyslo said the high rates are not just a problem of the delivery rooms or hospitals but of communities. He said many deaths can be prevented by improving health even before conception.
Ohio's infant mortality rate averaged 7.7 deaths per 1,000 births from 2006-10, according to the Ohio Department of Health. The rate for black infants -- 15.5 deaths per 1,000 births -- is more than double the rate for white infants.
"There's no reason to justify that if you're a black infant born in Ohio, you have 2.5 times the risk of dying before your birthday than if you were a white infant born in Ohio," Wymyslo said.
The top causes of infant deaths in Ohio include low birthweight, birth defects and sudden infant death syndrome.
Wymyslo announced on Tuesday a new partnership between local health departments, the state department and CityMatCH, an organization that connects health agencies to solve problems, to halt the high mortality rates and the widening gap between white and black infants. Wymyslo said the partnership allows Ohio's urban centers to tap national experts and a wealth of information about the issue.
Miami Valley counties fare better than northeast Ohio and the state average for black infant deaths, but the rates are still much higher than for white or all infant births. In Greene County, the mortality rate from 2006-10 was 6.3 per 1,000 live births for all populations and 13.9 for black infants. Clark County's infant mortality rates 6.8 for white infants and 12.8 for black infants. Butler County's mortality rates were 6.9 per 1,000 births among white infants and 11 for black infants.
Dayton is one of nine Ohio communities chosen for the program, which costs each community $40,000 with half paid by the state Health Department. Montgomery County's infant mortality rate was 7.6 per 1,000 live births for all populations and 12.4 for black infants for 2006-10.
Jim Gross, health commissioner for Public Health -- Dayton and Montgomery County, said the high rates and racial disparity are "totally unacceptable." The department boosted its own efforts against the problem last year, when it was accepted into a national CityMatCH program and formed a coalition with the Greater Dayton Area Hospital Association and healthcare providers.
The group spent the first year studying the issue and plans to implement two ideas based on the data they provided to CityMatCH. The first is encouraging progesterone therapy to help with preterm and the second emphasizes group care, grouping pregnant women together to share their experiences.
"We're trying to move quickly, but move in a manner that's thorough as well," Gross said.
State Sens. Shannon Jones, R-Springboro, and Charleta Tavares, D-Columbus, said Tuesday they plan to bring the issue to the forefront of Senate health discussions.
"No matter how we slice this problem, it's significant it's way worse than the national average," Jones told reporters Tuesday.
Jones, who chairs the Medicaid, Health and Human Services committee, said she and Tavares plan to hold meetings across the state with local health leaders and the public so lawmakers can better understand the roots of the problem.
"I believe the more legislators and the larger community are aware of the problem, the faster we're going to see results," Jones said.
Jones said premature babies cost Ohioans nearly $1 billion, and Ohio Medicaid serves more than 3,000 babies in the neonatal intensive care unit at a cost of $166 million. Tavares said the problem is not only a moral issue, but a fiscal one.
"If you look at the bottom line, if we do better by our infants and close the disparity gap, we will be saving money and, most importantly, saving lives," Tavares said. ___