Mississippi’s leaders routinely boast about their efforts to become the “safest state in the country for unborn children.” Rarely mentioned, however, are the grim realities many Mississippi babies face once outside the womb.
Nearly 10 out of every 1,000 children born in Mississippi die before their first birthday. Not only is that the highest rate in the country, it’s among the highest in the developed world.
The 34 member-states of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — a collection of the world’s wealthiest countries — averaged 4.1 infant deaths per 1,000 live births in 2011, the last year with complete statistics. The U.S. rate that year was 6.1 per 1,000, good for 27th place among advanced countries. Only Mexico exceeded Mississippi’s 9.4 deaths per 1,000 live births.
If compared to the entire globe, Mississippi would have ranked 59th — behind Costa Rica, Kuwait, and Lebanon and just ahead of Russia, Ukraine, and Oman. The below map shows the countries that are less risky for infants than Mississippi.
Mississippi infant mortality rate: 59th
A range of factors contribute to infant mortality, but one thing is clear: few babies die if born to healthy, mature mothers who have access to quality pre- and post-natal care. As a result, a society’s infant mortality rate is often used as an indicator to measure the health and well-being of the entire population. Healthy countries with universal access to care such as Iceland, Sweden, and Japan experience 80 percent fewer infant deaths than Mississippi.
Mississippi, on the other hand, has the worst public health stats in the U.S., which in turn ranks poorly on those same indicators in international comparisons. High incidences of obesity, chronic disease, smoking, and teenage pregnancy all contribute to Mississippi’s poor infant survival rates. Access to the healthcare system is limited due to poverty, rural doctor shortages, and high numbers of uninsured, while the lack of education can hinder the effective use of the healthcare services that are available.
And in Mississippi — as in America as a whole — unaddressed racial inequities mean that African Americans are more likely to experience each of the above conditions. Thirteen black infants die for every 1,000 live births in Mississippi — worse than in 75 countries.
Black infant mortality rate: 76th
By comparison, 6.6 of every 1,000 white babies die in Mississippi, a rate that would squeeze out Malaysia for 46th place in the world. Lest anyone try to ascribe that merely to a lower rate of teenage pregnancy among whites, consider this: the infant mortality rate for babies born to white teenage mothers is 30 percent lower than for black mothers above the age of 20.
So while systemic racial inequities conspire to kill twice as many black babies as white babies, the universal neglect of poverty and public health in our state reduces the life chances for babies of all colors.
White infant mortality rate: 46th
The only thing that makes the loss of newborn life more tragic is the knowledge that it might have been prevented. If these maps teach us anything, it’s that the solutions are available — places far poorer than Mississippi have figured them out.
To its credit, the Mississippi Department of Health has a strategy to lower the infant mortality rate that includes smoking cessation, reductions in teen pregnancy, and the elimination of elective early deliveries. And following the national trend, Mississippi’s infant death rate has been on a slow downward path in recent years. However, these interventions are only capable of modest improvements without a wholesale commitment to the physical, economic, and educational well-being of all Mississippians.
Data Sources: 2011 international estimates developed by the UN Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation (UNICEF, WHO, World Bank, UN DESA Population Division) at www.childmortality.org; Mississippi infant mortality and child poverty data by KIDS COUNT Data Center