The number of Ohio infants who died before their first birthdays dropped to 929 in 2019 from 938 in 2018, marking a third straight year of decline, according to a new report released by the Ohio Department of Health (ODH).

There were 356 Black infant deaths in 2019, an increase of 17 from 2018. This is still lower than 2015, 2016 and 2017. However, the racial disparities gap continues to widen, with Black infants being 2.8 times more likely to die than white infants. The number of white infants that died in 2019 was 518, the lowest number in the past 10 years.
 
The infant mortality rate is the number of infant deaths per 1,000 live births. Ohio infant mortality across all races was 6.9 per 1,000 live births in 2019, the same as it was in 2018. The Black infant mortality rate was 14.3 in 2019, up from 13.9 in 2018. The Ohio and national goal is 6.0 or fewer infant deaths per 1,000 live births in every racial and ethnic group.
 
“Since my first full day in office, when we created the Home Visiting Advisory Committee, we have been working to reduce infant mortality and the racial disparities that exist. The situation is unacceptable: Race and zip code should never dictate your health outcomes,” said Ohio Governor Mike DeWine. “With the help of the legislature, we have invested new resources into proven programs, such as evidence-based home visiting programs, group prenatal programs, community navigators, and other programs designed to address infant mortality and racial disparities. Since the report only goes through 2019, it does not show the full impact of these investments since funding began in late 2019. Yet, there is no doubt we must do more.”
 
On Thursday, Governor DeWine announced that he is establishing the Eliminating Racial Disparities in Infant Mortality Task Force. Members will work with local, state and national leaders to identify needed changes to address Ohio’s racial disparities in infant mortality. With the goal of developing a statewide shared vision and strategy for reducing infant mortality rates and eliminating racial disparities by 2030, the Task Force will create actionable recommendations for interventions, performance and quality improvement, data collection, and policies to advise the Governor’s Office of Children’s Initiatives on improving Ohio’s investments and strategies in addressing racial inequities in birth outcomes.
 
The Eliminating Disparities in Infant Mortality Task Force will begin its work in January 2021 and will include listening sessions in each of the nine counties designated as Ohio Equity Institute (OEI) counties, as well as in Allen and Lorain counties. These 11 counties represent geographies with high numbers of Black births and infant deaths.
 
The nine OEI counties and metropolitan areas accounted for close to two-thirds of all infant deaths, including 87 percent of Black infant deaths, in Ohio in 2019. These counties include: Butler County, Cleveland/Cuyahoga County, Columbus/Franklin County, Cincinnati/Hamilton County, Toledo/Lucas County, Youngstown/Mahoning County, Dayton/Montgomery County, Canton/Stark County and Akron/Summit County. These counties receive additional funding and supports through the Ohio Departments of Health and Medicaid detailed below.

The Eliminating Disparities in Infant Mortality Task Force will work closely with the Ohio Department of Health’s Chief Health Opportunity Adviser, who focuses on advancing equity for vulnerable populations. This role is another step in Governor DeWine’s action plan to advance health equity and establish Ohio as a model for justice, equity, opportunity and resilience. 

“Ohio set the goal of reducing the number of infant deaths to 6.0 infant deaths per 1,000 live births for all babies nearly a decade ago. We have yet to even come close to achieving equity for our mothers, babies, and families of color,” said ODH Director Stephanie McCloud. “Black infants die at a rate nearly three times that of white infants. That disparity is amplified as we continue to see success in decreasing the white infant mortality rate, without seeing any significant change in the Black infant mortality rate. Things must change now in order to achieve our goal of eliminating racial disparities in infant mortality by 2030.”
 
The leading causes of infant deaths in Ohio in 2019 were:

• Prematurity-related conditions including pre-term birth, respiratory distress and low birth weight (29 percent);

• Congenital anomalies (19 percent);

• External injury (12 percent); and

• Sudden infant death syndrome (6 percent).
 
Other key highlights of the 2019 Ohio Infant Mortality Report include:

• About two-thirds (66 percent) of infants who died in 2019 were born pre-term (37 weeks gestation or less). In comparison, just 10 percent of all infants born in 2019 were pre-term. Similarly, while infants born at less than 24 weeks gestation made up just 0.3 percent of births, they made up 35 percent of infant deaths.

• Sudden Unexpected Infant Death (SUID) is a term used to describe any sudden and unexpected infant death, whether explained or unexplained, that occurs during infancy. In 2019, there was a total of 147 cases of SUID in Ohio. The SUID rate in Black infants is almost four times higher than in white infants.
 
Current state investments in infant mortality strategies includes:

• More than $60 million, over the biennium, to expand home visiting services through the Ohio Department of Health, which are proven to reduce infant mortality and enhance parenting skills. These additional resources began flowing to communities in January 2020, leading to more than 1,000 new families enrolling in home visiting services, which can positively impact infant mortality in future years.

• $26 million, over the biennium, through the Ohio Department of Health to reduce infant mortality through safe sleep, prenatal smoking cessation and embedding Neighborhood Navigators in communities experiencing the highest rate of Black infant mortality. Neighborhood Navigators help connect pregnant Black women to clinical and social services to reduce stress and increase access to needed supports, while other team members help communities develop policies and programs to address the social determinants of health related to preterm birth and low birthweight, which often drive inequities in birth outcomes.

• $26 million, over the biennium, through the Ohio Department of Medicaid to provide grants to counties experiencing high rates of infant mortality.
 
In addition, maternal and infant health, including infant mortality and racial disparities in birth outcomes, are key health priorities in the State Health Improvement Plan developed by ODH with state and local partners.
 
The complete 2019 Ohio Infant Mortality Report, including data by county, is available at https://odh.ohio.gov/wps/portal/gov/odh/know-our-programs/infant-and-fetal-mortality/reports.