Tiara Thomas holds her baby So-Nae Turner as Natalie Jones, a certified community health worker from Butler County Moms and Babies First, looks on during a PRIM Community Action Team event outside Primary Health Solutions Health Center in Middletown, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017. Th PRIM team - consisting of local community leaders, Pastors, advocates and concerned citizens are working together to combat Infant Mortality. GREG LYNCH / STAFF

Ohio’s overall infant mortality drops as black rate jumps

Ohio’s infant mortality rate in 2017 reached its second lowest point in nearly 80 years but the improvement has mostly benefited the parents of white babies.

There were 982 Ohio infants who died before their first birthday last year, down 42 from 1,024 infant deaths in 2016, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

The 2017 number marks the second time infant deaths have dipped below 1,000 since 1939 which was the first year the state started keeping records. The last time the number of infant deaths dropped below 1,000 was the year 2014, according to ODH.

» RELATED: Infant deaths increased in Ohio in 2016, state puts $50M in budget for issue

Despite the overall decline, a racial disparity in infant deaths continued last year and got even worse for blacks.

Black infants died at three times the rate at which white infants died and more than twice the overall rate of infant mortality in Ohio, according to ODH. Around 15.6 black infants died for every 1,000 born in 2017 compared with 5.3 white infants, 4.2 asian and pacific islander babies and 7.2 hispanic infants, ODH reported.

“The data shows we are helping more babies in the state reach their first birthdays, but we still have a lot of work to do – particularly in eliminating racial disparities in birth outcomes,” said Lance Himes, ODH director. “Ohio is investing millions of dollars in local infant mortality and disparity initiatives, particularly in high-risk communities and populations.”

Ohio has invest around $137 million in tackling infant mortality over the last eight years, said Sandy Oxley, chief of maternal, child and family health at ODH. 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. Of the nine counties with the highest infant mortality rate, Butler, Franklin, Stark and Summit all saw fewer black infant deaths in 2017 than they did the year before.

“It’s a very, very complex issue. There are a lot of efforts and they are concentrating those efforts to the area’s most affected,” said AnnMarie Schmersal, a nurse practitioner at Dayton Children’s Hospital who is a member of the health care provider’s infant mortality awareness and prevention committee. “To expect quick results is not very realistic for this issue. Unfortunately it’s a very slow and steady progress with this work.”

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 of eight counties in the Miami Valley, ODH data shows.

» RELATED: Montgomery County provides more funds to battle its infant mortality rate

The high rate has forced area leaders to address it like officials in other communities have, something Oxley said will help drive down the rate in the future.

An Infant Mortality Task Force was established last year with the goal of reducing the infant mortality rate in Montgomery County to 6.0 by the year 2020. The county is also planning to set up an organization similar to Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services which is credited with decreasing the number of overdose deaths, Montgomery County Commission president Debbie Lieberman told this news organization earlier this year.

It could be several years before Ohio’s infant mortality rate dramatically starts to decrease, Oxley said. While local and statewide initiatives are making a dent, Oxley said it takes time to change outside contributing factors such as education, poverty, access to transportation and housing, among other things.

“The long term change within a community is going to take more than just a few years,” Oxley said. “This is a decades-old problem and so its going to take a long-term solution.”

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