The head of the National Healthy Start Association challenged child mortality advocates to persist in the fight to make sure that babies in this country don’t die prematurely.
Deborah Frazier, CEO of the association, delivered that challenge Thursday at the Omni Hotel during the 20th-anniversary celebration of New Haven Healthy Start program of The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.
The city’s infant mortality rate stands at 11.4 per 1,000 births, according to the director of New Healthy Start, Kenn Harris. That rate has dropped considerably since Healthy Start started in 1997, he said.
“To qualify for Healthy Start you have to be at least one-half times the national infant mortality rate,” Frazier said. “All those who go in, are at least one-half times the national rate, but after Health Start gets in there for a couple of years we are below the national rate.”
Frazier said though the national infant mortality rate is trending down for the United States as a whole, the Healthy Start infant mortality rate is even lower. As of 2015, the national infant rate was nearly six infant deaths per 1,000; the Healthy Start rate is 5.2.
“If you plot the Healthy Start program trajectory next to the [national trajectory], it’s going to be 2023 before the nation catches up with the current Healthy Start mortality rate,” she said.
“So, we’re doing a good job,” Frazier added. “I don’t know why we don’t get more money. But we’re doing a good job. We’re doing a great job.”
She said if advocates and communities like New Haven want to keep seeing progress, they have to keep the same focus that they have had since the Children’s Bureau was created by law in 1912 and when the federal Healthy Start program was created in 1991.
Frazier said what is true about infant mortality today was true in 1991 and 1912: More babies die before their first birthday in communities where people are plagued by poverty, educational achievement is low, community and domestic violence persists, homelessness and lack of adequate housing are prevalent, and where people abuse substances and health problems go unchecked.
She said over the 26 years that the federal Healthy Start program has been in place, it has helped address a “constellation of social and health problems” the impact infant mortality. The work must continue no matter who is in office, noting that infant mortality rates are directly impacted by policies. She said Reagan-era policies that cut direct services to women coincided with high infant mortality rates. Frazier pointed to the more recent actions by Texas lawmakers to avoid expanding Medicaid and to block Planned Parenthood precipitated a rise in maternal mortality that rivals that of Third World countries.
Frazier urged attendees to be vigilant about policies at the state and federal level that undermine the health of women and ultimately the health of children.
“Nothing is too small or too great to save the lives of children in a community,” she said. “Children are our greatest resources. And remember: You cannot change what you are willing to tolerate.”
New Haven Healthy Start has worked with more than 13,000 pregnant women. “The Healthy Start babies do better than” other babies in town, Kenn
Harris said this week during an interview on WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven” program. He said the current infant mortality rate for babies
whose mothers is 4.5 percent. The big disparity is racial: African-American babies in New Haven die at 2.5 percent times the rate of white babies,
a similar statistic to the national disparity. (The rate among Latino babies is approximately the same as that of white babies.)
Harris came from Boston to New Haven in 1997 to run the city’s program. He also heads the board of the National Healthy Start Association,
which represents 100 local programs across the country. New Haven’s is the only one run by a community foundation. It received a $5.7 million
federal grant to support it from 2014 through 2019.
Click on or download the above audio file to hear the full episode of WNHH’s “Dateline New Haven.” The episode features Kenn Harris
as well as National Head Start Association CEO Deborah Frazier and Arthur James, executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of
Race and Ethnicity and an associate clinical professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center.
Paul Bass contributed reporting.