Alabama health leaders want more to help reduce state's infant death rate

Hundreds of babies die every year before their first birthday. Could their survival depend on what they look like?

Posted: Nov 7, 2019 3:12 PM
Updated: Nov 8, 2019 9:41 AM

Hundreds of babies die every year before their first birthday. Could their survival depend on what they look like?

WAAY 31 is digging deeper into the staggering statistics in our state's racial divide when it comes to Alabama's infant death rate.

"We have been dating since we are 15 and 16 years old," said Kyra Zewe. "We were really excited to find out that we are pregnant."

Like many young couples, Kyra and Adam Zewe dreamed of one day starting a family. Kyra described a smooth pregnancy, having no issues until the day after a checkup at 38 weeks.

"The next morning, I woke up and I felt the baby kick," she recalled. "(And) then, a few hours went by and I didn't feel the baby kick."

In an instant, without explanation, their baby was gone. Kyra and Adam were given just a short time to hold their first born, Jack.

"Driving home with an empty car seat, it was just it was very difficult and we still think about him every single day."

The Zewes are just one of many families to experience the pain of losing an infant child. 

"Unfortunately, Alabama tends to rank towards the bottom. On any given year, we are either 49th or 50th with our infant mortality," said Lisa Carter, an Alabama Department of Public Health regional perinatal coordinator.

She said the problem only intensifies when you look at racial disparity in Alabama's infant death rates. Records show black or minority infants die at nearly twice the rate of white babies.

"When we look at racial disparities, many times we're looking at insurance, medicaid births, access to care issues that come into play. Unfortunately, for some of those populations of individuals, they don't have that kind of access or support system in place."

In 2017, the black infant mortality rate in Alabama was 11.2 deaths per 1,000 live births, more than double the rate for white infants, which was 5.5.

"We have to wonder why we are so high," stated Dr. Wes Stubblefield, who serves as the medical director for the Northwest Region of Alabama Coordinated Health Network for Medicaid. "Of course, there's many reasons for that. It can be long standing racism, it can be economic divide, it can be all of those things, but that is unacceptable for children."

He said state agencies are beginning to look at race and equality for addressing statewide issues, but it will take a combined effort to really tackle the issue of infant mortality.

"We need to seriously consider how we take care of the people in our state, and specifically, how we take care of some of the most vulnerable people in our state," Stubblefield said.

He says it warrants another look at expanding medicaid.

"It's been shown by research that states that have expanded medicaid, their infant mortality rates have gone down, compared to states that have not," he said.

In Alabama, 435 babies died in 2017, putting Alabama well above the national average when it comes to infant death.

"One of the things the World Health Organization (WHO) looks at is, our infant mortality rate is a direct reflection of the general health of our population," said Carter.

If Alabama wants to make a change, medical leaders say communities need our legislators to get on board.

Just last year, Gov. Kay Ivey instituted an infant mortality reduction initiative, pledging a million dollars over five years to address issues related to infant mortality in the three counties in central Alabama with the highest infant death rates.

"It goes back to the fact that it's not just about putting money into systems, although that helps," Carter explained.

"I just wonder how many of those infant deaths could be avoided," said Zewe.

Organizations like the March of Dimes have stepped in to do what they can to research this ongoing problem, helping families like the Zewes move forward in their healing process.

"Since then, we have been blessed with two more boys and they're happy and they're healthy, and even though they don't replace our first baby boy that we had, they definitely make our wound a lot smaller."

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