OTHER OPINION: Fetal deaths are too high in Mississippi

Published 4:00 am Sunday, August 13, 2023

There was no good news in a recent report about fetal deaths from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mississippi continues to lead the nation in this tragic measurement, the same as it does in the death rate of infants under 1 year of age.

A story from Mississippi Today said that CDC statistics for 2021 indicate there were 10 deaths of fetuses after at least 20 weeks of gestation per 1,000 live births in Mississippi. The national stillborn death rate for that year was 5.73.

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Only five other states had stillborn death rates above 8 per 1,000 live births: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Nevada and Wyoming. Mississippi, unfortunately, compares better to territories such as Guam (11 stillbirths per 1,000) and Puerto Rico (12) than it does to the other 49 states.

The CDC information points out Mississippi’s inability to support pregnancies and infants the way other states have. The state’s challenge is to figure out why this has happened and what can be done to reduce it so that our stillborn and infant mortality rates are in line with the rest of the country.

Probable suspects in these high rates include a tendency to avoid prenatal care for the first months of pregnancy, the state’s lower per capita income and our rural nature that makes health care more difficult for some to reach.

There’s no getting around race. Nationally, the Black fetal mortality rate is literally twice as high as the white rate. There’s no reason to expect Mississippi to be any different.

The CDC report doesn’t delve deeply into non-medical causes of stillbirths, with one significant exception: smoking. Nationally in 2021, there were only 5 stillbirths per 1,000 live births among pregnant women who did not smoke. But among smokers, the death rate was 9.6. Any effort to reduce the number of stillbirths should begin right there.

To their credit, state health officials appear determined to reduce Mississippi’s stillbirths. The Department of Health and the state Division of Medicaid are setting up a “Healthy Moms, Healthy Babies” program that will send registered nurses to the homes of women with a high-risk pregnancy or who have recently given birth.

The Department of Health, under Dr. Dan Edney of Vicksburg, also is setting up an obstetric program that will organize the transfer of women in a high-risk pregnancy to better care as needed.

It’s a start to solving a problem at which most of the country is doing better than Mississippi. Bringing the rates of stillbirths and infant deaths into line with national averages may take years, but it’s simply got to be done. There is no need to be perpetually last.

Actually, there is one speck of good news in the CDC report about stillborn babies. Since 1990, the national fetal mortality rate has been on a slow but steady decline, from about 7.5 per 1,000 live births to 2021’s 5.73. That means Mississippi can improve its figures, too.

Originally published in the Greenwood Commonwealth.