INFANT MORTALITY; Absentee Leaders

Article excerpt

Small, but meaningful improvements in reducing the needless deaths of its youngest and most vulnerable residents have been made in Duval County.

The rate of infant mortality, which is death before the first birthday, has been declining since 2005, when this editorial page produced a three-part series on this local tragedy titled "Too young to die."

The infant mortality rate for the county in 2005 was 11.6, one of the highest in the state and nation. It has declined slowly and steadily till it passed a benchmark. In 2009, it dropped below 9.0 for the first time, to 8.4.

A watershed was reached in 2007, when Jacksonville Community Council Inc. took up this daunting subject, thanks to the generous support of study chairman Howard Korman and the leadership of JCCI chairwoman Helen Jackson.

Those who attended every meeting of the infant mortality task force received an education in the tangled web of influences involved in pregnancy.

They also learned that infant mortality in poor neighborhoods is not solely a health issue; it involves jobs and education.

Duval County has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the state for both whites and blacks. But it is the excessively high rate for African-Americans that has produced much of the concern.

The current rate for blacks in 2009 (12.4) is more than double the rate for whites (5.5). The gap is actually worsening.

MORE THAN HEALTH

When all other factors are sorted out - class, education, wealth - the high rate of infant mortality in African-American neighborhoods could only be attributed to the stresses felt by black women as a result of racism.

That doesn't mean the cause is hopeless; far from it. There still are many ways of reducing the rate of infant mortality. But racial stresses cannot be denied, either.

So what has produced the gradual reduction? There is no simple reason.

Carol Brady, executive director of the Healthy Start Coalition of Northeast Florida, said that crib deaths have been reduced. Through better education, mothers and caregivers are learning that infants should not sleep on their stomachs, nor around fluffy bedclothes, nor in the same bed as their parents.

The health of the mother is a key factor in producing a healthy baby. And that has to start before pregnancy; you can't make up much ground in a few months.

GOOD PROGRESS

Yet, there are many examples of progress. JCCI set out 15 recommendations.

The implementation committee, headed by the Rev. Tom Rodgers, reported eight were fully implemented, three partially implemented and four yet to be done.

Perhaps the biggest regret is there has not been the creation of a "babykeeper," an advocate for children along the lines of the Riverkeeper.

Doesn't the Jacksonville Children's Commission advocate for kids?

Yes, but it does not have the independence that an ombudsman would have, supported by privately raised funds, like the Riverkeeper. …