Babies’ deaths frustrating
Baby deaths in Columbus and Franklin County exceed state and national averages. A task force is out to find solutions.
By Misti Crane • THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
If the well-being of a community can be measured by the survival of its most-vulnerable residents, Columbus and Franklin County are in an undeniable crisis. On average, three babies who’ve not yet seen their first birthdays die each week in this county. Today, Columbus City Council President Andrew J. Ginther is to announce a broad community effort to drive down the number of babies who die. An Infant Mortality Task Force — 18 people had agreed to be on it as of Friday — will begin meeting in January and is expected to have a plan by June, Ginther said.
The goal is to cut infant mortality in half in the next decade and erase disparities that make the outlook today much worse for black infants.
Some deaths can’t be avoided. But many can, primarily through prevention of premature births and making certain that babies sleep in safe environments — alone, on their backs and without toys and bedding that bring risks of suffocation. Much work already is being done in these areas, both statewide and locally.
- But progress has been frustratingly slow for those who’ve long looked at infant mortality here and wondered how it can be so high — higher than the state’s, twice as high as New York City’s and higher than the nation’s.
In the third quarter of this year, there were 8.6 deaths per 1,000 live births in Franklin County. So far this year, the overall rate has been 8.3. Almost 13 percent of babies are premature, and more than 9 percent have a low birth weight. If you look at certain neighborhoods, the numbers get far worse.
“Why in God’s name do we have third-world infant-mortality rates in parts of our city?” Ginther said.
He and experts on the task force acknowledge socioeconomic obstacles that can be daunting. But they also know of communities — Baltimore and New York, for example — where challenges, including housing, poor nutrition and inadequate health care, have been met with change that is keeping more babies alive.
“We know we can do better,” said Columbus Health Commissioner Dr. Teresa Long, who is part of the task force. “This is a prosperous, well-educated, caring city, and having high rates of infant mortality doesn’t reflect the values that we hold.”
People with expertise in health, housing, business, education, government and social services will be part of the group, as will parents, religious leaders and philanthropic organizations. The group also will rely on outside experts to guide its work.
Long said other communities have made headway in a variety of ways, including through legislative change.
This past summer saw the beginning of a Maryland law banning the sale of crib bumper pads, which are a suffocation risk. Baltimore residents on jury duty watch safe-sleep videos.
“There’s a growing understanding that it’s not just about health care,” Long said.
Dr. Steven Gabbe, CEO of Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, along with leaders from the other hospital systems, is a task-force member. He well understands the obstacles to improving death rates. His wife, Dr. Pat Temple-Gabbe, works with expectant moms in parts of the city with some of the highest infant-mortality rates.
He once worked on a Pennsylvania study in which he and his team did everything they could think of to lower premature births in a group of women at high risk, and the numbers didn’t budge. Poverty, poor nutrition, lack of transportation and child-care challenges all likely stood in their way, Gabbe said.