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Black Infant Mortality Rate Hits Record Low In Hamilton County

Becca Russo
Cradle Cincinnati
A women named Danielle cradles her baby in 2018.

Hamilton County's infant mortality rate dropped in 2020 to its lowest number since record keeping began in 1968. Cradle Cincinnati reports Black infant deaths dropped below the national average for the first time in more than 25 years, too.

The agency reports 76 babies died before their first birthday, 20 fewer than in 2019. The county's infant mortality rate for 2020 was 7.4 deaths per 1,000 live births.

The number of Black infant deaths - 36 - dropped sharply, too, for a rate of 10.6 deaths per 1,000 live births. That's a 42% decline since 2017, and puts Hamilton County below the national average of 10.8 for the first time since 1994, according to Cradle Cincinnati.

"That's very significant," says Patrice Pennington, director of Cradle Cincinnati Connections. "Infant mortality has hit hardest in the Black community, and we believe by focusing on births in the Black community, we'll be able to address what's at the root cause of this and also create change for families outside of the Black community."

The numbers would seem to indicate increased efforts to focus on Black maternal health and supporting Black women and babies are paying off. Those include work by Cradle Cincinnati Connections and its partner organizations, and groups like Queens Village.

Pennington says work must continue to keep numbers moving in the right direction. That involves looking at the ongoing effects of racism in systems of care and how to make improvements. If that can happen, she says, things can get better.

"We have to be able to talk about how race is affecting care. We have to be able to talk about how race is even affecting our wages and how that is contributing to our education system, and housing even. There's so many of our Black mothers and children that are victims of poverty and homelessness. Until we really call out racism for what it is and begin to address that, we're going to stay challenged."

Little steps in that direction have been key to the successes so far, she adds.

Preterm Births Declined

Extreme preterm birth is the leading cause of infant death. Hamilton County's numbers dropped to 34 preterm birth-related deaths in 2020, nearly a 50% decline.

"The improvement was led by improvements in Black extreme preterm birth-related deaths, which are now one-third of what they were just seven years ago," says Cradle Cincinnati in a release, crediting "a community of partners strategically aligned around lowering this driver of infant death."

Sleep Related Deaths

Cradle Cincinnati's annual report released Monday isn't all positive. Sleep related deaths increased to 21 from 15 the year before.

As WVXU reported in February, Hamilton County and partners are launching a safe sleep campaign to combat the problem. It reiterates the "ABCs of Safe Sleep:" that infants are safest alone, on their back, and in a crib.

How Is The Pandemic Affecting Infant Mortality?

While the declines in infant mortality come after years of concerted programming, they also occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pennington says Cradle Cincinnati expects to learn how changes during the pandemic may have played a role.

"Were there stressors taken away because folks were forced to stay inside and not have to be in spaces where they felt unseen or unheard? Did that remove some of that stress?" she ponders. "There's been a shift to think about mental health and how that might also be at play or be taken into consideration as we consider solutions. I think there's a lot to learn from what has happened during the pandemic - on the positive and negative sides of things - to see how we can take that into account as we move forward."

A week-long summit on maternal and child health is underway this week in Hamilton County. Pennington says several women have already shared how isolation affected their pregnancies and families and experience. Not every aspect has been negative. She says some women shared how being forced to slow down or work remotely allowed more time to bond with their babies.

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.