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N.C. infant mortality dipped in 2016, but officials say more work is needed.

North Carolina’s infant mortality rate dipped by 1.4 percent in 2016 to 7.2 deaths per 1,000 births, compared with the 2015 rate of 7.3 infant deaths per 1,000 births, state officials said Thursday.

The numbers mean that the infant death rate has plateaued, although officials with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services said the decrease is encouraging. The state’s record lowest infant mortality rate was 7.0 per 1,000 births in 2010.

State health experts are developing strategies to lower the rate and improve the health of mothers and their babies.

“We need to do more to address the true determinants of health, if we want to see improvements,” stated Elizabeth Tilson, state health director and chief medical officer, in a news release. “Our goal is to lower the infant mortality rate for all babies in North Carolina and decrease disparities within our populations.”

Officials say many factors influence infant mortality, among them tobacco use and substance use disorders, obesity, domestic violence, poverty, racism and education. The report also cited access to pre-conception and prenatal care as factors.

A wide gap between birth outcomes for white women and African-American women has persisted in North Carolina for years. African-American infants die at more than twice the rate of white infants. In 2016, the rate for white infants was 5.0 per 1,000, slightly lower than the 2015 national rate for all infants of 5.9, while the rate for African-American infants in 2016 was 13.4 per 1,000. Similar disparities are also noted in birth outcomes between American Indian and white women.

North Carolina’s strategy has expanded to further focus on the underlying determinants of health.

“It is essential that we increase statewide access to health and healthcare for women, especially in underserved populations,” said Kelly Kimple, chief of the Division of Public Health’s Women’s and Children’s Health Section. “When we improve the health of women throughout their lives, we will see an increase in the number of healthy mothers and babies.”

To lower the mortality rate, the state has implemented a five-year N.C. Perinatal Health Strategic Plan, which was launched in March 2016. The plan is designed by subject matter experts from across North Carolina and guided by leaders in perinatal health who meet regularly to evaluate results and plan next steps.

A committee of nine experts from across the state also formed in 2016 to address maternal mortality. The committee is reviewing the causes of death among mothers, and how they might be prevented.

For more information, visit http://www.schs.state.nc.us/data/vital/ims/2016/.

Cliff Bellamy: 919-419-6744, @CliffBellamy1

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