High infant mortality rates have long troubled Tarrant County, Texas, but researchers are hoping that a recent study will provide insight into improving the health of babies statewide.
The study looked at infant mortality rates in Texas ZIP codes from 2011-2014, and some of the results were staggering.
Locally, in the 76164 ZIP code, which includes parts of Fort Worth, Sansom Park and River Oaks, infant mortality rates were six times higher than in neighboring 76107.
The infant mortality rate in 76164 was 12.3 per 1,000 births, compared to 1.8 per 1,000 births in 76107, which includes the exclusive Westover Hills neighborhood and Arlington Heights.
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The data is part of a new study by the University of Texas System Population Health initiative, called Infant Mortality In Communities Across Texas. Researchers at UT System Public Health hope their data will be an added resource to communities in Tarrant County that are trying to lower infant mortality rates.
“We need to have the best data available,” said Dr. David Lakey, associate vice chancellor for Population Health and chief medical officer for The University of Texas System.
He said drilling down to the most grassroots level of data allows communities to explore the question: “Why are rates so different?”
Infant mortality rates reflect the deaths of babies who die in their first year of life for any reason — from health complications to car crashes to child abuse. The issue has been a top concern in Tarrant County as it worked to improve some of the worst rates in the nation for African Americans.
Often, social and economic differences in communities are pieces of the puzzle, said Ann Salyer-Caldwell, deputy director at Tarrant County Public Health. But these factors are just part of the story in Tarrant County, she said.
“Most of the time our problem is related to prematurity and poor maternal health,” said Salyer-Caldwell, adding that many cases involve babies who die in the first week of life.
Looking at the data
In the UT System study, researchers calculated ZIP code level infant mortality rates using data from Texas Vital Statistics Linked Birth and Death Records from 2011-2014 — about 1.54 million births. ZIP code level infant mortality rates were calculated if there were more than 400 births to mothers living in that ZIP code. Of 2,455 ZIP codes in Texas, infant mortality rates were calculated for 842 ZIP codes.
Among key findings are that some ZIP codes in Texas didn’t experience a single infant death in the four years covered in the study. But in some ZIP codes, more than one percent of infants died before their first birthday. Race/ethnicity are not the sole indicators of high or low rates because there is variation across ZIP codes and race.
There were 15 Texas ZIP codes that had at least 400 births between 2011 -2014 and zero deaths, including the 76109 ZIP code in Fort Worth. That ZIP code includes affluent neighborhoods near Texas Christian University. The findings are included in an interactive map.
The study states that infant mortality rates are “a leading indicator” to understanding the health of infants, mothers and the community.
“These data document the wide geographic variation in the state but do not show why the variation exits,” a brief supporting the study states. “Explaining this variation, including the role of social and economic factors operating outside the individual or family sphere, is an important first next step.”
Lakey said Texas is a large state and its overall infant mortality rate “masks the huge disparities that can exist in the state.”
But gains are being made: In 1990, the overall infant mortality rate was 9.91 infant deaths per 1,000 births, which dropped to 5.6 per 1,000 in 2015.
‘A downward trend’
Tarrant County’s rate in 2015 was 6.7 deaths per 1,000. That same year, Tarrant County Public Health’s calculations revealed that the county’s infant mortality rate among African American babies dropped into the single digits. The rate was 9.59 infant deaths per 1.000 births in 2015. That rate had been 13.56 infant deaths per 1,000 births in 2014.
“We’ve definitely had a downward trend,” said Salyer-Caldwell, explaining that overall rates move up and down. “It’s the lowest since we have been looking.”
Tarrant County has long focused on improving the health of babies and today the Tarrant County Infant Health Network is a community-based effort that puts the focus on the well-being of babies.
Salyer-Caldwell said more work remains, including ensuring that more women have access to healthcare during pregnancy. The issue needs to be targeted on different fronts, she said explaining that Infant Health Network is working on a project that helps unemployed women ages 18 to 44 find work.
Education, income, baby safety, adequate diet, employment and financial literacy all play a role in helping mothers and babies in the first year of life, she said. Putting added attention on data helps advocates continue this work, she said.
“We would love to have it to continue to go down,” Salyer-Caldwell said.
This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.