EDITORIAL: Black infant mortality rates have returned as Fresno crisis

Motivated by the fact that Fresno County has one of the highest mortality rates in the nation for black infants, community leaders vowed to address what they called "a crisis" in the early 1990s.

Forums were held. Theories were explored on why so many black babies were dying. Backed by special funding from the state Legislature, the Fresno County Black Infant Health program was launched.

Four nurses made home visits. They formed relationships with expectant mothers and provided information stressing the dangers of drugs and substance abuse and their direct connection to low birth weights -- a primary cause of infant mortality.

The program worked. Between 1992 and 2001, the county's black infant mortality rate decreased from 37.1 per 1,000 live births to 11.4. Then six years later, the Great Recession began forcing Fresno County to try to do more with less. An effort with 11 employees and a $1.3 million budget was decimated. By 2010, the Black Infant Health program was down to two employees and about $250,000.

Now, as The Bee's Barbara Anderson reported on Sept. 27, we are seeing the dire results. The county's black infant mortality rate was 27.3 in 2011 -- nearly three times the statewide average. In addition, the mortality rate for all infants in the county rose from 6.5 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2007 to 7.8 in 2011. Statewide, meanwhile, infant mortality rates are falling.

"Public health programs really do make a difference. If we want to address this problem, we have to increase support," John Capitman, executive director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute at Fresno State, told Anderson.

Support can come from peers, volunteers and county employed counselors. But past success also suggests that home visits from professional nurses can make a big difference in preventing infant deaths.

Come next June, when the Fresno County Board of Supervisors votes on its fiscal-year budget, we'll see if the fact that black babies are dying at a rate that is unacceptable -- and inexcusable -- is addressed with appropriate funding.