The heartbreaking reasons American babies have a shockingly high mortality rate

A recent report found that American children's mortality rate is much higher than the rate of countries that are similarly wealthy.

By Liz Krieger

The heartbreaking reasons American babies have a shockingly high mortality rate

Photo: iStockphoto

America is among the richest nations in the world, and lays claim to many superlatives in terms of our quality of life. But in one critical and heartbreaking way, it's lagging far behind.

A new report in the journal Health Affairs finds that over the last fifty years, childhood mortality rates in the United States (versus those of 19 economically similar countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD) have been slowest to improve. To make that even more concrete, consider this: American babies are 76 percent more likely to die before they turn a year old than babies in other rich countries, including Canada, Australia, Italy and Germany. And American children who survive infancy are 57 percent more likely to die before adulthood.

This isn't new. Childhood deaths in American have been higher than all other peer nations since the 1980s, and over the 50-year period the researchers studied, that has amounted to the loss of more than 600,000 children. The question is, why? The study authors were able to pinpoint several overarching reasons for the elevated risks for children born Stateside.

“Persistently high poverty rates, poor educational outcomes, and a relatively weak social safety net have made the U.S. the most dangerous of wealthy nations for a child to be born into,” says study leader Ashish Thakrar, an internal medicine resident at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, in the Washington Post. Some 90 percent of childhood deaths, the researchers say, occurred among infants and adolescents 15 to 19 years old.

For babies, the leading causes of death for the most recent decade, the researchers say, were premature births and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Children in the U.S. were three times more likely to die from prematurity at birth and more than twice as likely to die from SIDS. America has the highest premature birthrate in the "developed" world and its rate of "extreme prematurity" is three times the OECD average. America's deeply fragmented health care system may also be to blame for some of the infant deaths. For instance, in a woman may not have health insurance before becoming pregnant, and that could lead to issues going untreated that will affect the child later.

Among older children, gun violence is at the core. Americans teens age 15 to 19 are 82 times more likely than teens in other rich countries to die of a gun homicide. Among black American adolescents, gun homicides are the leading cause of death in the United States.

The research team called on officials to fully fund the Children's Health Insurance Program, which provides health insurance to millions of disadvantaged children, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps). Applying public health research and solutions to gun violence and car crashes can also help level the playing field for U.S. children.

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