The rapid increase in the rate at which black babies in Milwaukee die in their first year of life is an “embarrassment to our city, to our country and to our state,” Mayor Tom Barrett said in a public statement last week.
Infant mortality rates dropped to a historic low in 2011, but new statistics show a reversal of such advancements, as white babies are now three times more likely to survive in infancy, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s compilation of the Milwaukee Department of Health’s data.
In a series of studies and stories, the publication found that the disproportion in survival rates between the two races was among the worst in the country.
John McAdams, a professor of political science at Marquette, said the newly released data regarding the aforementioned race gap is characteristic of Milwaukee.
He added that the infant mortality is strongly related to poverty extremes, among other leading factors.
“It’s not just poverty per se that is the problem, but rather certain kinds of irresponsible behavior that go with poverty: substance abuse, failure to get good medical care, absence of a father in the home, abuse and neglect of children,” McAdams said.
According to the city heath department, the black infant mortality rate in 2011 was 14.5 per 1,000, versus five the same year for white infants.
The statistics profiled 10,178 babies born in Milwaukee in 2011, where 100 babies died in infancy — with most of the deceased being black, according to the same findings.
The data showed that a little more than half of Milwaukee’s infant deaths are associated with premature birth, roughly 19 percent caused by unsafe sleep habits and the majority of the remaining 18 percent have untreatable congenital abnormalities.
Barrett said he wants to reduce the black infant mortality rate by 15 percent and the city’s overall rate by 10 percent by 2017, according to the Journal Sentinel.
Barrett Heald, a sophomore in the College of Communication, said Milwaukee needs to be more proactive in combating this issue.
“Historically, Milwaukee has been known to be a segregated area and this report has brought up (negativity-related facts and figures) of the past,” she said. “Milwaukee should offer help to all newborn babies and their mothers regardless of what race they are.”
Heald also said she thinks the main reason black babies are less likely to survive is a result of combined health care and income problems which are notably found in such Milwaukee area communities.
Citywide efforts have included the “Safe Sleep Campaign,” a series of advertisements depicting babies in danger of death (one notable example shows a baby peacefully sleeping while an ominous knife lies nearby). The campaign is intended to on call parents to protect their children and understand the realities of infant mortality.
Representatives for the campaign were unavailable for comment as of press time.
Jordan Torres, a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences, also said poverty is the root of this problem, adding that many cases resulting in high infant mortality rates are due to teenage parenting.
“It’s an issue because teen parents don’t have an education, which leads to no jobs or if any, a lower income (job),” Torres said. “Then when children are born, they sometimes don’t know how to care for them.”
Other efforts to combat this issue include the city’s “Changing the Determinants of Health” efforts, which will look into influential birth factors such as the environment, drug use and racism as well as starting a rigorous home visiting program for low-income first-time pregnant women in four of the city’s most worrisome ZIP codes.