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Summit attendees say more work to be done on infant mortality

The Delaware Healthy Mother and Infant Consortium had its annual summit Tuesday.

A central issue at the summit was Delaware’s infant mortality rate, which stands at almost eight deaths in 1,000 live births, according to the CDC.

According to DHSS Secretary Dr. Kara Odom Walker, that’s down from 2005, when the state’s infant mortality rate peaked at 9.3 deaths in 1,000 live births.

“And that’s real progress,” Walker said. “But despite that progress, we know that Delaware’s infant mortality rate is still significantly higher than the national average.”

The national average infant mortality rate is 5.9 deaths per 1,000 live births, according to most recent CDC data. That rate nearly doubles when looked at for just non-Hispanic Blacks.

Similarly, the infant mortality rate for Black mothers in Delaware is more than twice that of white mothers. The disparity is highest in Sussex County, where the rate for black mothers is nearly three times what it is for white mothers.

Mawuna Gardesey, chief at Delaware’s Center for Family Health Research and Epidemiology and staff at the Delaware Healthy Mother and Infant Consortium, links this racial disparity to the role “social context” plays in maternal health.

“You’re talking about … housing, you’re talking about violence, you’re talking about lack of economic opportunities to be able to get good jobs,” said Gardesey. “You’re talking about educational attainment.”

Sister Elise Betz, a prenatal nurse at Saint Francis Hospital in Wilmington, also sees environmental and socio-economic factors—which often overlap with race—impacting maternal health outcomes.

“It’s the poverty,” she said. “The lack of good healthcare. The lack of good food. Everything.”

Public health and disparity researchers havealso hypothesized that the very experience of racism creates chronic stress which contributes to the gap between Black and white mothers’ health.

Gardesey notes Delaware’s high infant mortality rate, especially for Black women, may have even broader implications.

“Infant mortality is generally accepted as an indicator of a community’s health,” he said. “So when you have high infant mortality, … it says that the health status of that community generally is not very good.”

According to Gardesey, the top cause of infant death in Delaware is premature birth.

Anne Pedrick, director of the state’s Child Death Review Commission, says many infants deaths in Delaware are due to unsafe sleeping arrangements. According to Pedrick, infants should sleep alone, lying on their backs and in an empty crib.


“It’s heartbreaking when I see cases where the moms basically have said, ‘I have rolled over, and my baby was dead’,” said Pedrick. “It’s so preventable. And that’s what we need to address.”

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Saint Francis Hospital’s Sister Elise Betz believes the state Division of Public Health is making progress. Its Healthy Women, Healthy Babies program has helped her get legal aid and prenatal vitamins for patients. But she thinks maternal health should be a bigger priority in the city of Wilmington, where the infant mortality rate is 15.1 deaths per 1,000 live births for all races, and 16.4 for Black mothers—nearly three times the national average.

At the Delaware Healthy Mother and Infant Consortium Tuesday, Betz felt the city’s presence was lacking.

“The whole time that we were here, I was thinking, where is our Mayor? Where are the people from our city?” Betz asked. “Because they’re the ones that are really going to have to do something with this.”

She hopes to see more localized action and cooperation between sectors of the city to improve maternal and infant health.

“The social determinants of health are crucial,” she added. “And it takes everybody. It takes a whole city to have a healthy baby.”

The Delaware Healthy Mother and Infant Consortium developed out of former Gov. Ruth Ann Minner’s Infant Mortality Task Force, created in 2004 when Delaware had one of the top infant mortality rates in the nation.

Speakers at Tuesday's summit included Kenn Harris, co-creator of the Core Adaptive Model for Fatherhood program (CORE), Erika Clark Jones, executive director of CelebrateOne in Franklin County, OH, and Kathryn Edin, a leading national poverty researcher.

Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.