Miss. pilot program targets infant mortality

Published 2:19 pm Thursday, November 13, 2008

Mississippi’s latest effort to reduce one of the nation’s highest infant mortality rates is based more on logic than hard science, the state’s top health official says.

Dr. Ed Thompson of the Mississippi Department of Health said half of the babies who died before their first birthday last year were born with low birth weights.

Thompson believes medical intervention for mothers of low birth-weight babies before they have another child will reduce complications and the likelihood of an infant death.

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“Ordinarily, we wait until we have definitive science to guide us. We don’t have that luxury in infant mortality,” Thompson said.

He said a new pilot program, mostly privately funded, will focus on women in the Mississippi Delta and in Hinds and Copiah counties. If it’s successful, Thompson said he’ll ask lawmakers for money to take the program statewide.

For years, Mississippi made strides in reducing its infant mortality rate by providing access to health care through clinics across the state. But in 2005, the rate jumped to 11.4 deaths per 1,000 live births — the highest in the nation. The previous year the rate was 9.7.

“It should have raised the alarm. No alarm was raised,” Thompson said. “We are now raising the alarm.”

Mississippi had 10.1 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2007. Overall, 469 babies died, but there was a stark racial disparity. The rate of death among minorities was more than double that of whites.

Targeting the multi-county Delta region makes sense. The predominantly black area is one of the most impoverished in the nation, and lack of accessible, affordable health care is one of its main problems.

Thompson said the Mississippi pilot project is based on a successful program in Georgia.

This is how it will work: mothers who deliver babies weighing less than 2 pounds will be informed about the project. If they decide to participate, they’ll receive any needed medical treatment for ailments, such as diabetes, that could impact them in future pregnancies.

The women also will be encouraged to space their pregnancies by at least 18 months, Thompson said.

The average cost will be about $2,500 per woman. Thompson estimates about 800 participants for the program.

The state received a $1 million grant from the Delta Health Alliance for the Delta project. The Health Department will use about $100,000 in agency money for populous Hinds, where the capital city of Jackson is located, and in Copiah counties, said Juanita Graham, chief nurse for the state.

Graham said Copiah County was chosen because over the last several years it was among the top counties in the state with a high number of infant deaths.

On Friday, the Southern Mississippi Area Health Education Center will host a conference on infant mortality in Hattiesburg, bringing together neonatal specialists, researchers and families who have suffered the loss of a child.

Gina Fiorentini-Wright, assistant director of the center, said factors other than low birth-weight contribute to infant mortality, including congenital defects and chromosomal abnormalities.

“There are some women who do everything right and still lose their infants,” Fiorentini-Wright said.