A community plan to reduce infant deaths

Posted Saturday, Sep. 07, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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It is often said that a community’s character can be measured by how its people care for the most vulnerable among them. By that measure, we in Tarrant County can find much to be proud of.

Unfortunately, our infant mortality rate is a glaring exception, exceeding that of every other large city in Texas and rivaling those of some countries we do not generally consider our peers.

A baby born in Fort Worth is more likely to die before his or her first birthday than one born in any other large city in Texas. One out of every 119 babies born in Fort Worth fails to reach the age of 1.

For Tarrant County overall, an infant mortality rate of 7.6 per 1,000 live births translates into 1 in every 132 infants. And enormous disparities exist.

Among babies born to African-American mothers, 1 in 70 will succumb to infant mortality. For Anglo mothers, it is 1 in 185. For Hispanic mothers, 1 in 127.

Unacceptable infant mortality rates are not new here. They have been high for decades, rising and falling year to year but reliably topping the state or national average or both.

Calls for action from community leaders have sounded before, resulting in little change.

A new day is upon us. Important institutions are making unprecedented commitments that are converging with healthcare policy and funding opportunities to support them.

At JPS Health Network, leaders are responding to a challenge issued by the governing board of managers to help lower the county’s infant mortality rate to below the national average. No such commitment has ever been laid down or accepted before.

Prenatal care is a known antidote to health problems often underlying infant death, but women must be informed of the importance of care early in pregnancy.

JPS has committed to hiring maternity outreach workers from the communities with the highest infant mortality, workers who reflect the cultures of those whom JPS hopes to reach.

Prenatal dental care is being added to the services available to low-income, uninsured women. Women will get help applying for Medicaid and other forms of assistance, preventing delays due to application processes.

Federal dollars available under a Medicaid 1115 Waiver approved for Texas in 2012 will fund these and other improvements.

When the Star-Telegram explored the county’s high infant mortality rate in 2002, public health officials showed too little interest, saying prenatal care was a personal responsibility falling solely upon pregnant women.

Today our public officials are aligned with a committed cast of academic and civic organizations dedicated to improving the lives of our most vulnerable residents and the health of the entire community.

They include Catholic Charities, Tarrant County Public Health, area school districts and two organizations that I am personally involved with — the University of North Texas Health Science Center’s program Healthy Moms-Healthy Babies-Healthy Community (better known as H3,) and my own Rising Star Baptist Church.

The Star-Telegram’s 2002 stories pointedly noted that the voices of religious community leaders also were absent from discussion of infant mortality. I regret to say I was probably among them.

Our ignorance of the nature and causes of infant mortality contributed to our absence from the discussion. That has changed.

We now incorporate health education into our teachings, and we are talking to our youth about the importance of lifestyle choices.

And I’m preaching, too, about infant mortality, prenatal care and the responsibility we all share for improving the health of everyone in our community.

I urge everyone to help nurture Tarrant County’s new commitment to ensuring that women get the healthcare they need to give their babies the best possible start in life.

Let us finally erase the dreadful statistic that blights an otherwise enviable portrait of a compassionate, forward-looking community.

The Rev. Ralph Waldo Emerson Jr. is senior pastor of Rising Star Baptist Church and vice chairman of the JPS Health Network board of managers.

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