Indiana's infant mortality rate dips, but health officials say drop may be an anomaly

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INDIANAPOLIS — Former state health commissioner Dr. William VanNess said Thursday that while Indiana's infant mortality rate fell to its lowest recorded level in 2012 that drop appears to have been an anomaly despite state efforts to reduce such deaths.

VanNess, who stepped down last month as health commissioner, told about 500 people at an infant mortality summit in Indianapolis that Indiana's infant mortality rate fell from 7.7 deaths per 1,000 births in 2011 to 6.7 deaths per 1,000 births in 2012. That drop moved Indiana from the nation's sixth-highest infant mortality rate to the 19th-highest.

The decline was only the second time, including in 2008, that the state's infant death rate had dipped below 7 deaths per 1,000 live births. VanNess and his successor, Dr. Jerome Adams, both said 2012's numbers appear to have been a numerical anomaly and Indiana's infant death rate likely increased in 2013.

Adams said that with about 600 infant deaths each year in Indiana, it doesn't take much of a change in those numbers to send the state's infant death rate up or down.

"But we're always excited about any lowering of that number, even if it is a blip, because it means that less babies died that year," he said.

The infant death rate measures deaths among babies in their first year of life and is a key indicator of a state's well-being.

Adams said Indiana has been spending about $15 million a year in state and federal dollars on programs that include initiatives to prevent infant deaths. Those programs include a home nurse visitation program to check on pregnant women before and after they give birth and funding for local community groups working to reduce infant deaths.

Indiana's infant mortality rate is linked to its high obesity rate and high smoking rates, which increase the likelihood of premature births, he said. In 2012, 16.5 percent of Indiana woman smoke during pregnancy, twice the national rate.

Adams said getting more pregnant women to quit smoking and educating mothers about safe sleeping positions for newborns can reduce infant deaths.

Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield officials announced during Thursday's summit that the health insurer was partnering with CVS Pharmacy Inc. and the state to boost efforts to get more pregnant Hoosier women to quit smoking.

Anthem's public health program director, Amy David, said the company will invest $150,000 to expand a tobacco cessation program called "Baby & Me" to four more sites around the state, bringing Indiana's total to a dozen such sites. That expansion will double the number of women who can take part in that effort to about 600 a year.

David said women who quit smoking can receive vouchers for up to a one-year supply of free diapers through CVS. Participating women receive monthly breath tests to gauge their bodies' carbon monoxide levels and determine if they have recently smoked.

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