Butler County seeks grant funding to help reduce infant mortality

The health commissioners in Butler County hope an Ohio Department of Medicaid grant can help reduce infant mortality, especially in the black community.

Butler County ranked ninth-worst in the state in 2017 in babies dying before their first birthday, according to the latest data available. And while that ranking is improving — Butler County ranked fourth in 2013 — it’s still too high, and black babies die at three times the rate of white babies, said Middletown Health Commissioner Jackie Phillips.

“We’re doing better, but we have a big gap with African-American mothers,” she said.

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It’s an issue that Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said in his State of the State address in March “must stop” as Ohio tied Georgia for the eighth-highest infant mortality rate for all babies, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

More than 22,000 infants died in the United States in 2017, and 982 died that year in Ohio. The ratio of black babies who died before their first birthday increased from 2014 to 2017, up to 15.6 percent in 2017, according to the Ohio Department of Health. For white babies, that ratio was 5.3 percent in 2017.

According to the CDC, the five leading causes of infant death nationwide in 2017 were:

• birth defects;

• pre-term birth and low birth weight;

• pregnancy complications;

• Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS); and

• injuries, such as suffocation.

Phillips said the three health commissioners in Butler County — Kay Farrar with Hamilton, Phillips with Middletown and Jenny Bailer with Butler County — are looking at “innovative ways” to attack the issue.

“We’re really going to focus on African-American women because that’s where the biggest disparity lies,” she said. “As well as using our community health community workers and centering projects and a lot of other activities.”

Hamilton, Middletown and Butler County are applying for up to $1.49 million in grant funding from the Ohio Department of Medicaid to help pay for education programs to raise awareness of problems around infant mortality. Babies and the elderly are two of a community’s most vulnerable populations, Butler County Health Department officials said. The goal, they said, is to enact policies designed to reduce infant mortality, officials said.

Funds received from the Ohio Department of Medicaid will be managed by the Butler County Educational Services Center.

“Part of the problem is that our African-American babies are being born too soon and too small,” said Butler County ESC Early Childhood Programs Director Suzanne Prescott. “And that brings us back to what we really need to be working on.”

The plan for the grant isn’t complete, but depending on how much of the $1.49 million is received, the plan will include incorporating community health workers in the communities and operating two centering programs where pregnant moms receive prenatal care as well as a social network and education.

Education efforts include working to space pregnancies to ensure the baby is healthy and gets to its first birthday, and safe sleep as babies still die because due to co-sleeping and bad sleeping situations. They’re pushing smoking cessation because smoking affects birthweights and born early births.

Also, new moms should breastfeed as it “helps get babies through that first year,” Prescott said. Nursing not only helps with bonding between a mom and baby but also said “the SIDS numbers go down if the baby is breastfed.”

Prescott said in addition to getting black pregnant women the medical care and education needed, there are issues black women experience that white women don’t, such as overt and institutional racism.

“They experience racism in housing and jobs, and just their daily lives,” she said.

ESC already runs programs that serve close to 800 pregnant women, new moms and babies up to 3 years old. The hope, Prescott said, is to reach 50 to 70 percent of African-American moms within the county

“I think what happens is that people think it’s just poor moms, but it’s not,” she said.

One Ohio U.S. Senator is pushing to help reduce infant mortality.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Cleveland, is one of four U.S. senators and four members of Congress pushing to re-authorization funding for the Health Starts for fiscal years 2020 through 2024. There are five Healthy Start projects in Ohio in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Toledo.

“Despite having some of the finest doctors and best children’s hospitals in the country, Ohio still falls far short when it comes to infant mortality, ranking an abysmal 41st in the country,” said Brown. “And we have a serious problem with racial disparities in birth outcomes — black infants die at three times the rate of white infants in Ohio, and we rank near the bottom in deaths of African-American infants.”

The Healthy Start Program was established as a pilot program by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 and has grown from 15 sites in 1991 to 100 sites across 37 states in 2016.

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