MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The infant mortality rate in Memphis has hit a record low, marking an important milestone in the city's fight to improve a key measure of its overall health.
Shelby County, which includes Memphis, last year saw its lowest rate on record of babies who died before their first birthday, the county health department reported Monday. The 2015 rate of 8.2 out of 1,000 live births represents a drop from 9.6 in 2014, and a significant reduction from 2003, when the rate was nearly 15 baby deaths per 1,000 live births.
Infant mortality rates among non-Hispanic blacks was 10.6 per 1,000 live births in 2015, down from 12.4 percent in each of the prior two years.
While the county's infant mortality rate has improved from 13 years ago, it remains higher than the national rate of 5.8 baby deaths per 1,000 live births in 2014, according to a June 30 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Experts believe infant mortality is a good indicator of a community's general health. Risk factors include premature births, low birth weights, birth defects, accidents and other causes.
A main problem is substandard prenatal care. Other obstacles include poor long-term health care for women, smoking, alcohol use and drug abuse by expectant mothers, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
In 2003, the county's infant mortality rate was worse than many developing nations, including French Guiana, Kuwait, Lithuania, Tonga and others.
Health and government officials, together with community leaders, faith-based groups and hospitals, have made reducing infant mortality in Shelby County a priority since 2003. They've sought to improve what experts call the "social determinants" of health, including education, income and living conditions. Programs target reducing teenage pregnancies and improving prenatal care, nutrition and stress management for expecting mothers.
Dr. Alisa Haushalter, head of the health department, said the community has rallied together to fight the complex issue of infant mortality. It starts with promoting healthy lifestyles and active living in children, building strong neighborhoods and improving education about family planning, she said.
"Those things that impact whether or not infants live are representative of the other health issues that impact the rest of our community," she said. "Unhealthy living conditions, whether or not people smoke or don't smoke, whether or not people have access to quality pre-natal care."
In Tennessee, pregnant women are eligible to seek insurance to make sure they get pregnancy services early on. Other programs allow a woman to choose a hospital where she will receive midwifery services and access to an infant intensive care unit. Baby beds are provided for families so that infants don't have to sleep in the bed with their parents, which can lead to suffocation deaths. An informative app also is available.
LeBonheur Children's Hospital is part of the effort to improve the health of babies and their mothers. The hospital participates in a program that follows first-time pregnant mothers under the age of 19 through their entire pre-natal course and up to two years after the baby is born. The program has helped reduce premature births and low birth weights, said Meri Armour, the hospital's CEO.
But Armour says the fight is far from over.
"Moving forward, the answer is to create continued, better access in the community for pre-natal care, for early diagnosis, to prevent teen pregnancy," Armour said. "That's a high priority for us."