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Health & Science

Infant Deaths Drop in Cuyahoga County but Racial Disparities Persist

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The black infant mortality rate is decreasing in Cuyahoga County, but racial disparities still persist, according to preliminary data presented by health officials Tuesday.

For the first time in decades, the infant mortality rate in Cuyahoga County seems to be on a consistent decline, though racial inequities persist, according to health officials.

According to preliminary data collected by the Ohio Department of Health, the infant mortality rate in the county has dropped to 7.81 deaths per 1,000 live births. In 2019, the overall rate was 8.61, said Richard Stacklin, a statistician for the Cuyahoga County Board of Health.

The preliminary 2020 rate is based on data collected January through September of this year and is not the final analysis for the year, Stacklin said.

“If [the rate] was to hold for 2020 ... it would be the lowest we have seen in the last 30 years,” he said. “So, those are positive trends for infant mortality.”

In the third quarter of 2020, which encompasses July through September, the overall infant mortality rate dropped to 6.6, which is the lowest rate for any quarter since 2017, Stacklin said.

While the infant mortality rate has decreased this year for infants of all races, racial disparities have persisted, with black babies accounting for 74 percent of all infant deaths so far in 2020, Stacklin said.

Of the 75 infants who have died this year, 56 were black, he said.

The black infant mortality rate has decreased over the past few months, dropping from 16.8 in the second quarter of the year to 12.4 in the third quarter, Stacklin said. That rate is lower than previous third quarter stats, he said, but well above the third quarter overall rate of 6.6, as well as the white non-Hispanic rate of 2.8.

“We’re finally starting to crack the nut of narrowing the gap,” he said. “Even though there’s still a healthy gap between black and white infant mortality, we’re starting to make strides on that.”

The county’s data also shows 30 babies died after being born prematurely at 22 weeks or less over the past 12 months, which is a significantly lower number than in recent years, Stacklin said. Black babies accounted for the majority of premature deaths this year, as 26 of the babies who died after being born before 22 weeks were black, he said.

“While there’s still a huge gap, it is improving, but we still have, obviously, a lot of work to go to try to fix this inequity,” Stacklin said.

One highlight in the data this year, Stacklin said, is that the Hispanic infant mortality rate has decreased since last year. The county recorded 0 deaths in this demographic in the third quarter, he said.

Births are down 5 percent overall this year, but that does not have a factor in the drop in the infant mortality rate, as the rate accounts for the fluctuation in numbers of births, Stacklin said. The drop in births does not seem to be because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

While this year’s numbers are encouraging, there is still work to be done to reduce the racial disparities in the county’s mortality rate, he said.

 “A lot of times I’ve had to present data that’s been pretty awful, to be blunt,” he said. “I’m happy and encouraged that we are seeing positive trends.”

First Year Cleveland, a coalition of local organizations focused on decreasing the county’s infant mortality rate and targeting racial disparities, plans to ramp up its neighborhood outreach for infant mortality, specifically working with expectant moms in east side neighborhoods, where infant mortality numbers are especially high compared with other areas in the county.

Stacklin shared the infant mortality data at the First Year Cleveland quarterly Community Action Council meeting Tuesday. The meeting took place virtually this year because of the pandemic.

Final 2020 infant mortality statistics will be released at the end of the fourth quarter, which will be completed in December.
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