OTHER OPINION: Good News For Mississippi Kids

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, May 17, 2023

There was some recent good news about Mississippi children that didn’t get much notice: The state’s rate of screening children for developmental problems has greatly improved.

Mississippi Today cited rankings by the National Health Foundation that said the percentage of children receiving these screenings was the lowest in America in 2016. But thanks to a $17 million federal grant and the work of a state project known as Mississippi Thrive!, many more children are being tested for problems such as hearing loss that can affect speech capabilities.

In percentage terms, far too many children still aren’t being screened. But Mississippi’s improvement over the five-year period is nonetheless impressive.

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During that time, the state has almost caught up with the national average for early childhood screenings. It shows how public health can benefit when people put their minds to it and get some government support.

In 2016, according to the National Health Foundation, the parents of only 11% of children in Mississippi between the ages of 9 months and 35 months were completing a standardized developmental screening tool that pediatricians could use to determine whether to test for a health problem.

But for the two-year 2020-21 period, parents of 34% of children in the same age group completed the screening tool. That percentage ranked 33rd nationwide. As a sign of how much more screening is needed in the entire country, only Oregon hit 50% in 2020-21.

Mississippi’s rate compared favorably with its neighbors. Tennessee, with a 44% screening rate, was the only state higher than Mississippi. Other numbers included Georgia at 33%, Alabama 32%, Arkansas 28%, Louisiana 24% and Florida 20%.

Mississippi Thrive! was an effort by the University of Mississippi Medical Center and the Social Science Research Center at Mississippi State University. Their mission was to educate pediatricians, nurse practitioners, social workers, child care providers and parents on the importance of developmental screenings.

The five-year program focused on 31 doctors in six clinics between Jackson and the Gulf Coast. Pediatricians performed most of the screenings, guided by information from parents. All told, 85% of their patients were screened for developmental problems.

That’s a fine number, but it only involved part of Mississippi. The obvious challenge is to expand the program to the entire state.

The five-year federal grant has expired, but it showed what is possible. Renamed the Early Childhood Development Coalition, directors have enough money to keep working while seeking more funding. It’s a worthwhile cause: Mississippi will be held back if too many of its children are slow to develop basic skills.

Originally published in the Greenwood Commonwealth.