WAYCROSS -- The mortality statistics are low but the human toll so high that local authorities and Georgia public health officials soon will launch new public awareness campaigns targeting Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Public health officials also are intensifying efforts to pinpoint why more babies in a 16-county area of Southeast Georgia, including Ware County, have died of SIDS than infants in many other parts of the state.
The Southeast Health District based in Waycross has a SIDS rate almost one and a half times higher than the statewide rate, according to 1997 infant mortality statistics, the most recent available.
About 4,200 babies are born annually in the 8,000-square-mile district. Between 1994 and 1997, the district had five to seven SIDS fatalities annually, totaling 24.
That means three babies are likely to die of SIDS out of every 2,000 born in that district. The state rate is two SIDS fatalities per 2,000 infants born, the statistics show.
"SIDS is one of the most tragic and devastating things that can happen. It affects everyone in the family," Ware County Coroner Atha Lucas said. "It's very sad and frustrating. You don't know what causes it and it can't be prevented."
One baby died of SIDS last year in Ware County, Lucas said. No SIDS deaths have been reported this year.
"These rates always ping-pong from year to year," said Dale Loyd, with the state Division of Public Health. "When you're dealing with numbers so small even one death can push your SIDS rate way up there."
SIDS is the sudden and unexplained death of an apparently healthy child younger than 1 year old. It is the No. 1 cause of death among normal birth weight Georgia children ages 1 month to 1 year old, state health officials say.
It is unpreventable, unpredictable and can strike children of all races, cultures and socioeconomic levels, Loyd said.
"SIDS just happens. It is not indicative of the quality of care, or a commentary on the character of the mother, family or care-giver," said Loyd, who oversees public health perinatal services in 24 counties extending out from Savannah, Brunswick and Waycross.
While health officials have not determined why so many SIDS fatalities have occurred in the multi-county Southeast Georgia district, Loyd said they have a theory.
"We think it's because like the rest of the state, we're having difficulty convincing people to put babies to sleep on their back instead of the side or stomach," Loyd said. "It's hard to change people's behavior and traditions."
Although SIDS cannot be prevented, there are ways to reduce the risk, public health officials say. The first step, they say, is getting information about those precautions to the people who need it most: parents, grandparents, baby-sitters and other child care givers.
The Ware County Child Fatality Review Committee is planning a local public awareness and education campaign to publicize the ways to reduce the risk of SIDS.
The committee, comprised of law enforcement, public health and child social service agency officials, examines the circumstances of all child fatalities in the county.
Mandated by state law, the panel's mission is to determine if anything could have been done to prevent the child's death and eliminate the risk of similar fatalities in the future. Each Georgia county has such a committee.
Lucas, the Ware committee's chairwoman, said although there have been few SIDS fatalities in Ware County, authorities still are concerned and want to help ensure that people know how to reduce the risk.
"One SIDS death is too many," she said.
Both the Ware County and a separate state public health SIDS awareness effort now gearing up will emphasize that babies should sleep on their backs. That position, medical authorities say, is the most effective means of reducing the risk of those fatalities. …