The St. Joseph County Health Department’s offices, on the eighth floor of the County-City Building in South Bend. Tribune File Photo
The St. Joseph County Health Department’s offices, on the eighth floor of the County-City Building in South Bend. Tribune File Photo
SOUTH BEND — The rate of infant death in St. Joseph County in 2018 was higher than the national and state averages, and black families were the most affected.

Indiana ranks in the 10 deadliest states in the country for infants, said Sally Dixon, the Fetal Infant Mortality Review manager for the St. Joseph County Health Department. The infant mortality rate is measured by the number of deaths of an infant up to 1 year per 1,000 births. The 2018 rate for the U.S. was 5.9, with Indiana at 7.2 and St. Joseph County at 7.5.

Dixon presented the 2018 report Thursday to a room full of public safety and health workers.

From 2015 to 2018, the leading cause of infant death in the county was complications of prematurity at 63 percent, according to Dixon’s data. A full-term pregnancy is 40 weeks and these infants were born at an average of 22 weeks.

The next highest cause at 17 percent was sudden death, which can include SIDS, accidental asphyxiation or an undetermined cause.

And these issues are affecting women of color in St. Joseph County far more than white mothers, Dixon found. From 2013 to 2018, the death rate per 1,000 births was 18.9 for black babies and 10.8 for Hispanic babies. The rate for white infants was 5.1.

A previously unrealized factor, Dixon said, is racism and racial disparity. It was previously believed poverty and a lack of education was a major factor in the difference in the numbers, but it’s now believed it’s the constant stress put on a mother of color from being discriminated against that can lead to premature labor.

The infant deaths per 1,000 births for mothers on Medicaid is 7, Dixon said, so if poverty was a driving factor, you would assume that number would also be high.

“Even when controlled for education and income, the disparity remains, suggesting that the presence of structural racism and implicit bias within our system also contribute to disparities in infant and maternal health,” Dixon’s report reads.
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