The State Department of Health recently convened a leadership summit to address a public health problem that is as tragic as it is entrenched in Oklahoma: infant mortality.  The summit is part of a statewide initiative to raise awareness about the issue, Preparing for a Lifetime: It’s Everyone’s Responsibility.  Babies born in Oklahoma are less likely to reach their first birthday than in almost any other state in the country, with about 400 babies dying each year before their first birthday.

We currently have the 6th highest rate of infant death among the states, and Oklahoma’s infant mortality rate (IMR) has been consistently higher than the national average for more than fifteen years.  Between 1997 and 2007, the state’s IMR fluctuated between 7.5 and 8.4 deaths per 1,000 live births, as shown in the chart below from the March of Dimes:

The leading causes of infant mortality in Oklahoma are complications due to preterm/low weight births (LBW), birth defects, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).  To address infant mortality, the State Health Department focuses on improving support for mothers and babies in the following seven areas: maternal health before and between conception, breastfeeding, prematurity, postpartum depression, tobacco use, safe sleep, and injury prevention.

The morning agenda was focused on learning about the emotional, social, and economic costs of infant death.  Speakers included Joni Bruce from the Oklahoma Family Network; Melinda Heidling, a mother who had recently experienced the death of her baby due to an unsafe sleep environment, and Associate Provost Angela Monson from the OU Health Science Center’s Community Partnerships program.  The agenda split summit participants into work groups to brainstorm around ways to reduce the rate and impact of infant death.

OK Policy Director David Blatt spoke at the summit about the economic impact of infant mortality, click here for his presentation.  While there is no current estimate of the overall economic impact of infant mortality in Oklahoma, we can measure the cost to the state of treating the main correlates of infant death – preterm and low weight birth.  Since the state’s SoonerCare/Medicaid program pays for a majority of births each year (64 percent), and are slightly more likely than private payers to be responsible for complicated births, the economic impact of preterm and low weight births can be substantial.  Average hospital costs nationally for preterm/LBW infants are 25 times higher than the costs for uncomplicated births.

The presentation focused on evidence based programs and policy interventions that improve infant and maternal health.  Although many of these programs and policies require an initial upfront investment of public dollars, studies show that they save states money in the long run by reducing the number of low weight and premature births, and the extremely expensive hospital and medical care they require.  Expanding Medicaid eligibility to cover more low-income women, building more community health centers, and protecting access to family planning clinics will help ensure that Oklahomans have a chance to improve infant and maternal health outcomes.  The state should also end its policy of prohibiting cities and towns from enacting public smoking bans.  Second hand smoke is a known contributor to poor maternal health and infant mortality.

The meeting was well attended by leaders from all over the state – elected officials, providers, community activists, and public health professionals.  The emphasis and mission of the summit was on taking personal responsibility for Oklahoma’s infants, and each participant was encouraged to commit personally and professionally to taking specific steps to reduce infant death in their communities.  If you’re interested in learning more about or participating in/collaborating with a working group on infant mortality, click here for the contact information of working group leaders.  It’s up to mothers and fathers to get healthy and create a safe environment for babies, but it’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure that our public policies provide families the support they need.