Fewer babies dying in Detroit as prenatal care improves, officials say


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Detroit’s infant mortality rate, which was higher than any American city and even China and Mexico a decade ago, dropped to its lowest level in at least 20 years.

The rate of babies that die before their first birthday plunged by more than a third between 2018 and 2019, the latest year for which statistics are available. In 2019, the city reported 11 deaths for every 1,000 live births, compared to 16.7 deaths for every 1,000 live births in 2019.

The decline helped Michigan reach its lowest infant mortality rate – 6.4% – in a century.

In 1992, Detroit’s infant mortality rate was 21.4.

The gap also is narrowing between Black and white babies who die before their first birthday. The mortality rate for Black babies declined from 18.9 per 1,000 live births in 2018 to 12.3 in 2019. For white babies, the rate fell from 9.7 in 2018 to 6.4 in 2019.

The announcement was made Wednesday by Mayor Mike Duggan and Michigan’s Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, who was the city health department's director from 2017 to 2019.

“I’m an ER doctor. I have pronounced infants dead before,” Khaldun said. “These are not just trends. This is not just data. These are people’s lives. These are people’s children.”

The city credited the decline to partnerships and programs run by the health department, local health systems, and community groups such as Make Your Date, a local nonprofit focused on helping women have healthy pregnancies and births. The key was getting pregnant women to access to early preventive care, officials said.

Make Your Date was the subject of recent controversy after city officials deleted emails related to the nonprofit following accusations that Duggan had granted it preferential treatment because he had a relationship with the program's leader, Sonia Hassan. In a scathing report in December 2019, the Detroit Office of Inspector General found that Duggan’s then-chief of staff Alexis Wiley “abused her authority” by ordering city employees to erase emails that referenced the nonprofit, and two other city officials were “complicit” in carrying out Wiley’s orders to delete the emails. Last month, Attorney General Dana Nessel said her office, which investigated the deleted communication, would not file charges because emails were eventually recovered.

Babies are far more likely to be healthy when their mothers receive sufficient, quality care and support during pregnancy. Beginning in 2017, the city offered free rides to medical appointments and worked with partners to provide prenatal education classes and mentorships to guide women through each phase of pregnancy. In 2019, the city provided 6,226 Lyft rides, up from 723 in 2017.

The leading causes of infant death are low birth weight, birth defects, sudden infant death syndrome, and maternal pregnancy complications. Poverty, unsafe housing, food insecurity, environmental hazards, and transportation barriers also heavily contribute to maternal health and birth outcomes, health officials said.

“We’ve dramatically reduced this,” Duggan said of infant mortality deaths. “You cannot address the racial disparity in health care in this country without being very conscious, without being very intentional.”

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