Counseling for Moms Aids Inner-City Infants despite Gains, Gap Widens between White, Black Infant Mortality Rates

By Ann Scott Tyson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 15, 1996 | Go to article overview

Counseling for Moms Aids Inner-City Infants despite Gains, Gap Widens between White, Black Infant Mortality Rates


Ann Scott Tyson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Almost every day, pregnant teens with little income or family support show up at a two-story building in Detroit's inner city to take natural childbirth classes, learn about nutrition and parenting, or visit with midwives.

The award-winning BIRTH (Babies' Inalienable Right to Health) program, run by the United Way agency Operation Get Down, has provided comprehensive prenatal care for more than 2,500 mainly African-American teens since 1986. The program has helped hold the rate of infant deaths among the high-risk teens to fewer than 2 per 1,000 live births, officers say.

Projects such as BIRTH are contributing to sharp decreases in infant mortality in the pockets of America where the rate has been chronically high: among minority populations in large urban areas. After plateauing in the 1980s, the overall US infant mortality rate began to decline dramatically in 1990, falling to a record low of 7.9 per 1,000 live births in 1994. Experts attribute the general trend in part to better medical treatment for children. Also important, the experts say, is a decrease in deaths since pediatric guidelines were changed to advise that babies sleep not prone, but on their backs or sides. Still, the United States infant death rate is worse than some 20 other developed countries. Of special concern to experts is the wide, persistent gap between the death rates of black and white babies in America. "The main challenge is that the black infant mortality rate is still two to three times higher than the white rate," says Terri Wright, chief of the Bureau of Child and Family Services at Michigan's Department of Community Health. Nationwide, that gap is widening as the rate of infant deaths declines more rapidly among whites than among blacks. In 1992, the last year for which complete figures are available, the rate was 6.9 for whites and 16.8 for blacks. Experts are perplexed by the growing gap. "There is still no adequate explanation" for the racial differences, says Bernard Guyer of the Department of Maternal and Child Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "This disparity is very significant and very severe, but we don't know why," agrees Bernice Young, deputy director of the federally funded program Healthy Start in Rockville, Md. …

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