African American infants now die at more than 2.5 times the rate of white infants in N.C.

[Note: As was explained earlier this month in a post entitled “North Carolina needs help to meet strategic health objectives by 2020,” North Carolina is at real risk of failing to meet a series of objectives identified in 2010 as part of the “Healthy NC 2020” initiative. This post is part of a summer series that is providing in-depth coverage of some of the focus areas in which we are falling short.]

In 2010, the state of North Carolina identified 13 major health focus areas and established 41 decennial health objectives and targets to meet by the year 2020. As part of the state’s ‘Healthy NC 2020’ improvement plan, the state identified Maternal and Infant Health as a focus area and developed three objectives through which to track progress.

Recently released data show that North Carolina has made some progress on two of its three maternal and infant health objectives since 2008, but has failed to make any progress in reducing the racial disparity that exists between whites and African Americans. Today, the state’s infant mortality disparity between white and African American infants is greater than it was in 2008, while the overall infant mortality rate and the percentage of women who smoke during pregnancy have reduced slightly.

In order to meet 2020 targets, North Carolina needs to do more for maternal and infant health.

Infant mortality – or the number of infant deaths before age 1 for every 1,000 live births – is widely recognized as an important indicator of a state’s overall health. This measure has long been a focus of public health work in North Carolina, and while the overall rate is improving, the worsening racial disparity between white and African American infants reflects poorly on our state. With African American infants dying at more than 2.5 times the rate of white infants, there is a great deal of work to do to address the inequities that lead to these dire outcomes.

Infant health is tightly connected to maternal health, and ensuring that women have the supports they need before and during their pregnancy is vital to making a long-lasting positive impact. As stated in this report by the North Carolina Institute of Medicine on the Healthy North Carolina 2020 Maternal and Infant Health objectives:

Maternal health is an important predictor of newborn health and well-being, and addressing women’s health is essential to improving birth outcomes. Many factors affect women’s health, including individual health behaviors, access to appropriate care, and socioeconomic factors. Focusing on the health of a woman before and during her pregnancy is essential to the reduction of poor birth outcomes such as low birthweight, pre-term birth, and infant death.”

Currently North Carolina is preparing for changes to how Medicaid services are delivered and is making plans to address social determinants of health. This transformation presents an opportunity to make a big impact by addressing inequities that lead to poor health and could lead to improvements in maternal and infant health, in addition to many other areas.

Suzy Khachaturyan is an MSW/MPH intern with the Budget & Tax Center, a project of the North Carolina Justice Center. 

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