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Fewer babies overall are dying before their first birthday in Detroit and across the state, though infant mortality has increased for Hispanics and black infants still die at a rate double that of white babies, according to a report released Wednesday.

Detroit’s declining infant death rate is cause for joy among scores of community groups and health care providers who’ve focused intensely on improving the odds for local children. A 2014 Detroit News investigation, “Surviving through age 18 in Detroit,” found Detroit had the highest death rate in the nation for children 18 and younger, due mostly to high rates of infant mortality and homicide.

“We are very excited to hear this news, but not surprised,” said Dr. Sonia Hassan, obstetrics director with Wayne State University/Hutzel Women’s Hospital in Detroit, who helped launch the Make Your Date Detroit initiative to fight preterm birth — a primary cause of infant mortality.

“Our program, Make Your Date, has been diligently working for the past three and a half years to reduce the rate of pre-term birth — the leading cause of infant mortality — in the city of Detroit. This news gives us further encouragement to continue our work.”

Researchers from the Michigan League for Public Policy compared the three-year averages of death rates and other health indicators from 2008 through 2010, and from 2013 through 2015, breaking the results down by race for their report, “2017 Right Start: Annual Report on Maternal and Child Health.” The researchers examined data for the state and 69 of Michigan’s largest cities, focusing on eight heath indicators, such as maternal education and age.

Research has shown that disparities such as racial inequity, poverty, stress, food insecurity, lack of education and limited access to transportation or health care can contribute to poor health outcomes for mothers and babies. For this reason, infant mortality is considered a good gauge of health in a community.

“There has been an overall improvement in the state, but racial and ethnic disparities continue to exist,” said Alicia Guevara Warren, project director of Kids Count with the Michigan League for Public Policy.

“Also troubling is a rising infant mortality rate for Hispanics. Solutions and strategies need to be targeted where disparities exist.”

Infant mortality statewide declined to 6.8 deaths per 1,000 births in 2015, from 7.3 deaths per 1,000 births in 2010. In Detroit, which had the highest infant U.S. mortality rate in 2010, the rate declined to 13.1 deaths per 1,000 births in 2015 from 14.4 deaths per 1,000 births in 2010.

Among significant challenges, deaths rates for Hispanic babies increased to 9.4 from 8.2 deaths per 1,000 babies born over the time frame. For Hispanics in Detroit, infant mortality increased to 8.2 from 6.1 deaths per 1,000 births.

Also of concern, 5.3 percent of births in 2015 were to women who didn’t have prenatal care or started later, a 10 percent increase over 2010. The rate of smoking during pregnancy increased 18 percent. And there were 14,000 preterm births in 2015, a 20 percent increase over 2010.

Guevara Warren said improvements in Detroit are due at least in part to the tremendous focus on improving the health of children in the city. She hopes news of the increased deaths among Hispanics will result in similar efforts.

More than 25 organizations are involved in the Maternal Infant Health Program in Detroit, part of a statewide initiative that provides in-home support for pregnant and new moms.

The Detroit Healthy Start focuses on improving birth outcomes for African-American women, who are at greater risk of delivering before their due date.

Make Your Date Detroit, an initiative started by Mayor Mike Duggan in collaboration with Detroit’s major health systems, provides prenatal care to city residents regardless of their insurance coverage. The program focuses on making sure women are checked and treated for a short cervix, a condition that contributes to preterm delivery but can be treated with progesterone.

“There is much work to still do,” Hassan said. “The progress that has been made is a result of a lot of great people doing work in this area. Further strides are necessary with a particular focus on disparities.”

kbouffard@detroitnews.com

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