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Government and private groups work to try to lower Oklahoma’s high infant mortality rate

Filed by KOSU News in Feature, Health.
May 8, 2013

The following post was written by KOSU’s Quinton Chandler.


Oklahoma has the sixth highest infant mortality rate in the country. Experts say it’s in the state’s best interest to limit the number of infant deaths and the legislature seemed to agree. Last year lawmakers set aside money for just that purpose. So what is being done in the struggle with infant mortality?

If you’re not pregnant and not planning to be you may not think much about the infant mortality rate. Not because you don’t care but it may not seem relevant. Well you may want to rethink that.

“The more unhealthy your community is, the higher your infant mortality rate is going to be. When two to three babies die every week in central Oklahoma, it’s a lot. It’s a lot.”

In 2010, Oklahoma’s infant mortality rate was 7.59, that’s nearly 8 deaths for every thousand births. But, saying it that way may not put it in the right perspective. Here’s Jenette Cline with the State Health Department.

“What that amounts to is about 400 babies a year that are born in Oklahoma die before their first birthday.”

Compare that to the national level: 6.15. It makes a big difference.

“If we met the national rate we could save about 80 babies a year.”


“We must provide better care for our children both in the womb and at birth.”

Last year the Legislature put Governor Fallin’s words into action by signing off on a sum of $1 million dollars to fight infant mortality. The money was funneled through the State Health Department to go to hospitals and county health departments across the state.

They want to hit the problem at the source by whittling down the top three causes of infant death. Premature birth, birth defects, and in last place, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and unsafe sleep.

“One thing I’d like you to think about is the nature of hospitals. They are clinical in nature and they are short term….”

Lawanna Holstead with the Oklahoma Hospital Association says in the past two years simple changes have dropped the number of induced premature births across the state by about 80%.

“Through a grant that the Oklahoma Hospital Association received from the March of Dimes and also some partial funding from the Oklahoma State Department of Health, the Hospital Association created a program called Every Week Counts.”

Basically the program limits doctors to delivering only after a full 40 weeks of pregnancy unless it’s medically necessary. There’s no guarantee this will save lives but Jenette says it’s something that can’t be overlooked.

“A lot of critical development takes place the last few weeks of pregnancy so it’s really important to have a full term pregnancy if possible.”

Battling the other two issues, birth defects and SIDS, is more about education and outreach .

“We really are not a silver bullet. We’re not a quick fix. What we are is we’re trying to empower and inspire the community to find ways within itself to increase awareness, increase access, find gaps in the system.”

Ali Wilke is an RN with the Fetal and Infant Mortality Review, another Health Department partner. The Review teaches women to stay healthy before, during, and in-between pregnancy. Because sometimes good health makes all the difference.

We really want women to be aware of the caloric intake. Just eating a variety of healthy foods, remaining physically active, not smoking.”

More than half the deaths the Review sees in central Oklahoma are tobacco related. And obesity, which the state also ranks high in, is a proven road to birth defects. Both preventable. And when it comes to the third leading killer…. it’s a mixed story.

“SIDS unfortunately is not preventable, we just know how to decrease the risks, but deaths related to unsafe sleep are preventable.”

Ali says unsafe sleeping conditions are behind a fifth of infant deaths and there’s only one way to stop it.

“Get out the awareness to the hospitals and reach as many people as possible. It is all about awareness.

“We have a Facebook, we have a Twitter, we even have a Pinterest page where we post things on what a safe sleep environment looks like.”

The Health Department’s goal is to reach a rate of 7.25 by 2015. Jenette seems to think the goal is possible.

“Let’s see we’re in 2013… I do. We’ve seen a reduction from 2009 to 2010 and I believe that we will see a reduction and meet that goal.”

Possible, or practical, we won’t know for at least a couple of years. But, even if they make it 7.25 is still far above the national average.

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