The infant mortality rate for Shelby County dropped in 2011 for the first time to below 10 deaths per 1,000 live births, the lowest ever for the county.
The infant mortality rate for Shelby County dropped in 2011 for the first time to below 10 deaths per 1,000 live births, the lowest ever for the county, and officials credited a countywide collaborative effort to help babies see a first birthday.
The rate of 9.6 deaths per 1,000 live births marks a 35 percent decline from 14.9 per 1,000 births in 2003. African-American infant deaths went from 21 per 1,000 births in 2003 to 13 per 1,000 births in 2011.
County statistics go back to 1930, when 98.9 infants per 1,000 died, a number that by 1960 had fallen to 29.9.
It's a "stubborn indicator to move," said Yvonne Madlock, director of the Shelby County Health Department.
Officials credited advances in public health and public health policy.
"We need to continue to better identify why babies die in Shelby County and strategies to develop appropriate interventions, implement those well, evaluate, modify and change systems as we need to," Madlock said.
The work involves helping women gain access to quality health care before they have babies, during their pregnancies and between pregnancies.
"We've got to make sure everybody in our community moves out of Third World status so we don't have the levels of poverty and unemployment and lack of access to care that one should not expect in a developed nation," Madlock said.
We've got to make sure everybody in our community moves out of Third World status so we don't have the levels of poverty and unemployment and lack of access to care that one should not expect in a developed nation.
Yvonne Madlock, director of the Health Department.
There are many public and private agencies that can take credit for the drop in infant deaths, said Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell.
"I think our health department has done a good job of really educating the community and making the community aware that this is one of the more critical public health issues that we have in our community," Luttrell said.
The county Community Services Division and the faith community have been key players, he said.
The county mayor singled out the Sheldon B. Korones Newborn Center at the Regional Medical Center at Memphis, one of the oldest and largest neonatal centers in the country.
"The neonatal unit has really done a superb job," Luttrell said.
The drop from 14.9 to 9.6 is a huge decrease and the staff is proud to be a part of it, said Kelley Smith, nurse manager at the newborn center.
"The babies that we do get are the sickest babies and the moms are sick," Smith said. "When our babies are born they're already born having to struggle."
The Med has encouraged breast feeding those sick babies, with about 75 percent receiving mothers milk that is rich with antibodies during some portion of their time in the unit, Smith said.
It is also a part of the Vermont Oxford Network, a collaborative of 900 of the world's neonatal units.
"We collaborate with them in developing best practices and see what works and I think that's been huge," Smith said.
Although the falling infant mortality rate is promising, it is still much higher than the national infant mortality rate of 6.0 deaths per 1,000 live births.
While encouraging responsibility on the part of childbearing women, the community must look at systems changes, Madlock said.
One example, she said, is presumptive eligibility with regard for TennCare.
Low-income women with no health insurance who become pregnant are eligible for 45 days of coverage, allowing them time to apply for TennCare.
However, they may not know it exists or may have difficulty getting to a state office to apply.
"The other thing we've found is a woman gets presumptive eligibility care but is not successful in getting permanent coverage," Madlock said.
Some women wait until their seventh or eighth month to apply for presumptive eligibility so they'll have TennCare when they go to the hospital, Madlock said.
Her office is working to address how presumptive eligibility can be extended through the course of a pregnancy.
The 2011 data shows an improvement in infant mortality rates, but it is also a reflection of changes that began 5, 10 or 20 years ago, Madlock said.
And the solutions to infant mortality will impact what happens to babies 20 or 30 years from now.
"It drives medical costs, it drives education costs, it drives criminal justice cost," she said. "What it means is we lose talent and creativity that we'll never be able to recapture because each of those babies has potential. And it really could be any of our babies. While it's disproportionately experienced in population groups, none of us is insulated from it and its potential."
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