Infant Mortality Summit seeks to reduce family tragedies in Ohio

Ohio’s leaders and communities have made tremendous progress in awakening to this state’s horrific infant-mortality rates and developing resolve and strategies to save babies. The fight continues on Wednesday and Thursday, as the 2014 Ohio Infant Mortality Summit convenes at the Greater Columbus Convention Center.

While the first summit, in 2012, aimed to create awareness, this summit aims to continue the momentum and progress. More than 1,400 people have registered for the free event, hosted by the Ohio Department of Health. Speakers include Dr. Arthur R. James, associate professor in the Ohio State University Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and Columbus City Council President Andrew J. Ginther, who convened the Greater Columbus Infant Mortality Task Force.

“Unless we speed up our progress, we will never catch up,” James wrote, along with his summit co-leader, Lisa Amlung Holloway, of the March of Dimes Ohio Chapter.

Ohio’s infant-mortality rate (7.57 per 1,000 live births) is the highest of the 10 most-populous states. Ohio’s black babies die at more than twice the rate of white babies. In Franklin County , more than three families a week bury an infant.

These are Third World statistics. Cracking open the causes and fixing them will require a coordinated, sustained effort by legislators and leaders, health-care experts and community groups.

The enormity of the issues involved becomes obvious just by scanning the topics of the summit’s breakout sessions. Here is just a sampling: safe sleep, housing, breastfeeding, racial disparities, diabetes, medical support for addicted mothers, smoking cessation, genetic factors, engaging dads, maternal mental illness, access to transportation and preventing preterm labor.

No one imagines this is a problem that can be solved quickly. But many babies could be saved by helping parents make a few simple changes.

For instance, billboards have gone up locally in targeted neighborhoods urging parents to follow the ABCs of safe sleep: Babies should sleep alone, on their back, in a crib.

Yet, a new study in the journal Pediatrics finds that nearly 55 percent of American babies are put to bed with a soft blanket or comforter — a practice that raises the risk of suffocation or sudden-infant-death syndrome.

Dr. Michael Goodstein, a neonatologist in York, Pa., who serves on a task force on sleep-related infant deaths at the American Academy of Pediatrics, said he is “startled” by this finding. In a New York Times story, he said that “sleeping face down on soft bedding increases the risk of SIDS 21-fold.”

The study is the first to estimate how many babies sleep with such potential hazards as quilts, bean bags, blankets or pillows. Though parents are warned against putting anything but the baby in the crib, two-thirds of black and Latino parents still used bedding that was unsafe and unnecessary, the study found.

Babies are safest when they sleep on a firm surface covered only by a fitted sheet — no other blankets — and never in an adult bed or on a sofa.

This might help explain some of the enormous racial disparity in infant mortality. And it also supports local efforts to better educate parents.

As the state-summit organizers note, “our work is just beginning.”