N.C. must get off the infant mortality Top 5 list

We're in the Top 5, and we should be ashamed. In 2007 more babies died in infancy in North Carolina per 1,000 than in all but four other states.

That's not a ranking we'll be pitching to new businesses or putting on a Chamber of Commerce flyer. And it's not a ranking we can afford to ignore if we want to continue to be a thriving state where businesses choose to locate and people like to live. There's a link, notes Dr. Leah Devlin, the state health director.

“Infant mortality and poor birth outcomes are part of a cycle,” she said. “They stem from a lack of opportunity and education, and poverty.”

North Carolina's problems in those areas are borne out in other rankings. In 2005, the state was 13th in the nation in the percentage of persons living below the poverty level. We were 43rd in 2006 in the average hourly earnings for manufacturing production workers. That same year we were 16th in the number of bankruptcy cases filed. We were 11th in the number of AIDS cases reported.

But state health officials' recent infant mortality report is particularly troubling. Last year the infant death rate in this state rose 5 percent. It was a setback in the state's decades-long effort to reduce the number of infant deaths.

The death rates had been improving in recent years. Officials attributed that to more efforts educate women about taking better care of themselves and to providing better access to prenatal care.

But those efforts have not been enough. And as poverty, joblessness and economic troubles for families have increased, many more pregnant women aren't getting what they need. Instead, these young mothers engage in unhealthy habits such as smoking and wind up with health problems that put their pregnancies in peril.

Providing better opportunities and access to a good education for these low-income women will help. So will an improved state economy. But making these improvements will require leadership by state and local officials and strategic use of resources.

Where the state has focused money and effort on these kinds of issues, results show improvement. The N.C. rate of sudden infant death syndrome, for instance, dropped to 8.9 percent of infant deaths from 9.1 percent in part because of programs that teach parents to put babies to sleep on their backs.

Reducing the infant mortality rate is a challenge. But with more commitment and resources, we can do it.