Teesha Dow, at age 16, woke up to find her six-week-old daughter Ma’Kayla not breathing. The baby later died at the hospital after being rushed there by the then Dunbar High School student.
“I was in shock because I had basically put my whole life on hold for this baby, my first born,” said Dow, now a 33-year-old mother of three.
Since 2010, more than 8,200 Ohio babies have died before turning one. In 2017, the state’s infant morality rate — the number of babies who die before age 1 per 1,000 live births — was 7.2, its second lowest point in 80 years, according to the Ohio Department of Health.
There were 982 Ohio infants who died in 2017 before their first birthday last year, down 42 from 1,024 infant deaths in 2016, according to ODH.
Preliminary data from the Health Policy Institute of Ohio show that in 2018, Ohio’s mortality rate has dropped to 6.9.
“This shows some progress from 2017, which is promising; however, we know that this number is far, far too high,” said Reem Aly, vice president of HPIO. “So while we’re moving in the right direction we certainly cannot stop, and there needs to be a much more aggressive intention and approach across our state.”
Hundreds of area health officials met Friday at the annual Their Story is our Story Infant Mortality Conference at Sinclair Community College. The event addressed how racial bias plays a role, where to find community resources, why Ohio has worse birth outcomes than many other states, safe sleep practices, the benefits of doulas and managing maternal health.
“We care about (the mothers) and they’re at the forefront of our minds, which is how I believe we ensure babies turn one,” said Tiffany Terry, owner of Conscious Doula Services and former employee of Montgomery County public health. “Our priority is the mother. We want her to be well…We’re making sure she’s taking care of herself because her taking care of herself is taking care of the baby.”
Ohio has historically had a higher than average rate of infant mortality, hunger, hospital admissions and asthma among children, according to the Health Policy Institute of Ohio. Montgomery County had the highest infant mortality rate in 2017 of eight counties in the Miami Valley, ODH data shows.
The state has invested around $137 million in tackling infant mortality over the last eight years, Sandy Oxley, chief of maternal, child and family health at ODH previously told the Dayton Daily News. That investment has been used to primarily target nine Ohio counties that accounted for around 66 percent of all infant deaths last year and 90 percent of black infant deaths, ODH reported.
Those nine counties included some of Ohio’s most populous cities such Cuyahoga, Franklin, Hamilton, Lucas, Montgomery, Mahoning, Summit, Stark and Butler counties.
Gov. Mike DeWine in March earmarked $90 million in state funding over two years for home visits to at-risk pregnant women, new moms and their children up to age 3.
Black babies continue to die at a rate more than 2.5 times higher than white babies in Ohio, according to the preliminary information. In 2017, the most recent data available at the county level, Montgomery County’s black infants died at rates 4 times higher than white babies, according to Public Health - Dayton & Montgomery County.
“That’s not right. There’s no physiological explanation for why that should be happening,” said Jeffrey Cooper, Montgomery County Health Commissioner. “It’s about equity. It’s about identifying root causes and then making system-level change to drop that disparity.”
Disparities in transportation, housing, education and employment continue to make some mother’s more at risk of dangerous pregnancies with higher infant mortality rates. Many of the disparities stem from poverty, discrimination and persistent stress, trauma and violence, according to HPIO.
Most baby deaths are caused from being born too small or early, dying in their sleep or being burdened by serious birth defects.
“Earlier this year, our community did have an increase in the number of sleep-related infant deaths,” said Montgomery County commissioner Debbie Lieberman. “That’s one of those things, it just seems so simple. But I know, as when I had two babies, how tired you can be and just how overwhelmed you can be…those sleep-related incidents are preventable, so we have to be sure that we’re providing awareness and making sure that people have the tools that they need.”
Renee Sampson, who spoke at the conference, said she already had three children when she found out her first son, who she had been carrying for 8 months had died. She would never hear the cry she’d intently listened for when each of her older daughters were born.
“When you deliver a baby one of the first things you listen for is a cry. So I had to go through the entire experience knowing that I wouldn’t hear that sound. It was silent the whole time, just praying and praying to get it over with,” Sampson said.
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