MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Progress is being made in curtailing infant mortality, but far too many babies are dying in Tennessee before they turn 1 year old, Gov. Phil Bredesen said Monday.
Bredesen and other officials who spoke at the Stay the Course Summit in Memphis praised several initiatives that have helped reduce infant mortality rates in the past four years, including programs that provide quality prenatal care and educate pregnant mothers about how to have healthy pregnancies.
To help continue the work, Bredesen announced a three-year $1.6 million grant from the Governor’s Office of Children’s Care Coordination for the Centering Pregnancy and Community Voice programs in Shelby County, which includes Memphis.
Despite recent improvements, Tennessee still ranks near the bottom in the U.S. Shelby County consistently has the state’s highest number of infant deaths, with more than 12 out of every 1,000 live births dying before they turn 1.
Bredesen said infant mortality is a society-wide problem that sill needs urgent attention.
“Far too many babies still die in Memphis and across Tennessee before reaching their first birthday,” Bredesen said. “It’s no more acceptable today than it was four years ago. For those children who don’t make it we still need to push forward and to understand why.”
The gathering on Monday is a followup to an infant mortality summit in 2006 that outlined the problem and began the process of creating programs to combat infant mortality. Experts say infant mortality usually has several causes, including a lack of education among parents, poverty, poor diet and smoking or doing drugs during pregnancy.
Recent improvements have been quantifiable. In the clinic-based Centering Pregnancy program, where pre-natal care is provided in a class setting of pregnant students with similar due dates, more than 92 percent of babies born to participants were full-term with normal birth weights.
The Community Voice program has trained more than 1,000 lay health advisers across the Memphis area who have helped educate 7,000 residents about the importance of prenatal care and connect mothers to community resources.
Neither program was available before 2006.
Other areas of Tennessee also are reporting positive steps, said Dr. Michael Warren, medical director of the Governor’s Office of Children’s Care Coordination.
In the eastern part of the state, the Tennessee Intervention for Pregnant Smokers program reports that 53 percent of pregnant women in the program significantly reduced their amount of smoking and 10 percent quit during pregnancy, saving the state nearly $3 million in health care costs, Warren said.
In Davidson County, a program at the Martha O’Bryan Center in Nashville has led to more babies born in term and with normal birth weights.
These new programs, and several others, led to 47 fewer babies dying before they turned 1 year old than in 2006, Warren said. A total of 686 babies died before reaching their first birthday in 2008, he said.
Also, the state improved from 47th in the nation to 44th in infant mortality deaths, with the rate falling from 8.7 deaths out of every 1,000 live births in 2006 to 8 out of 1,000 in 2008, according to the most recent national data.
Infant deaths also dropped in Shelby County, from 13.8 deaths out of every 1,000 live births in 2006 to 12.3 out of 1,000 two years ago.
Gains also were recognized in the African-American community in Shelby County, where the infant mortality rate among blacks is more than three times that of whites. In 2008, 17.6 out of every 1,000 live births died before they turn 1, down from 19 out of 1,000 in 2006.
Community leaders and politicians at the summit celebrated the improvements but said the fight is not done.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, is backing a bill to create the Newborn Act, which would establish pilot programs to address infant mortality in several cities. Cohen said he hopes it passes this year or next year.
Memphis obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. Linda Moses, who said she treats many black pregnant women, said more future mothers need to educate themselves about how to have a healthy pregnancy for progress to continue.
“I see it every day, I live it every day,” Moses said. “Poverty is the thing that keeps us down, but education, or the lack of it, is the bigger part of it.”