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By almost every measure, Massachusetts is one of the healthiest states in the nation. In fact, the United Health Foundation’s Health Rankings Report recently ranked Massachusetts the second healthiest state, behind only Hawaii. Among the findings, we ranked #1 in Senior Health and #1 in Women and Children’s Health. However, one of the central tenets of our mission at DPH is to seek out disparities in health outcomes and implement effective, evidence-based interventions to eliminate them. This week, in honor of National Public Health Week, we’re putting the spotlight on five important health disparities in Massachusetts and what we’re doing to make them history – the first of which is infant mortality.  

Massachusetts has one of the lowest infant death rates in the nation, however, in the midst of significant progress, persistent gaps in infant mortality between Black, White and Hispanic babies still exist in our state.

Sudden unexpected infant death (SUID) was the leading cause of death among MA infants aged 1-11 months in 2014, our most recently available data. What’s more, an average of 32 Massachusetts infants dies annually due to SUID.

Taking a closer look at the data, during the period of 2010-2014 the average annual SUID rate among Black non-Hispanic infants (86.3 per 100,000 persons) was 2 times higher than the rate among White non-Hispanic infants (43.1 per 100,000 persons). This is exactly the kind of health disparity that DPH is committed to eliminating.

Chart showing the disparity in Sudden Unexpected Infant Death rates in Mass. 2010-2014.

Our first step in public health is to seek out root causes for any given health outcome. We know that unsafe infant sleep practices, such as placing infants to sleep on their stomach or their side, and an infant sharing a sleep space with an adult or another child (bed sharing), are associated with an increased risk for SUID.

According to another DPH data source – the MA Pregnancy Risk Assessment and Monitoring System (PRAMS) –69% of Black non-Hispanic mothers report placing their infants on their backs for sleep compared to 90% of White non-Hispanic mothers. Seventy-three percent (73%) of mothers participating in the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program place their infants on their backs for sleep compared to 88% of mothers not receiving WIC. Fifty-nine percent of Black non-Hispanic mothers and 51% of Hispanic mothers report bed sharing either always or 5 or more times per week compared to 30% of White non-Hispanic mothers.

Armed with this data, we’ve been working to provide Massachusetts parents impacted by this disparity with information and resources to help them keep their infants safe while sleeping and prevent Sudden Unexplained Infant Death syndrome.

We’re doing that by:

  • promoting consistent messages on Safe Sleep practices to families enrolled in WIC and Early Intervention programs offered by DPH
  • training other child-serving state agencies in the Safe Sleep practices, including the Department of Children and Families and the Department of Early Education and Care
  • collaborating with birthing hospitals to offer continuing education on infant safe sleep positioning and parental education in the hospital
  • working to develop a safe sleep policy or guidelines that birthing hospitals can adopt for their maternity facilities
  • providing an entire package of infant safe sleep educational materials for parents, including door knob hangers, flyers, and a home safety checklist – all available free of charge.

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health communication writer and editor

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