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Infant investments.

The infant mortality rate has by and large been steadily declining in the United States, but black babies still die at more than twice the rate of whites. The Centers for Disease Control reported in March that 9.8 babies had died by age I for every 1,000 live births in 1989; rolled into that figure is an infant mortality rate of 18.6 for black babies and 8.1 for whites. The white rate does not come off too badly when compared to, say, Australia (8) or Japan (leading the world at 5.0), but the black rate is worse than that of any European country except Yugoslavia (22) and Albania (52). And where the white mortality rate dropped 4 percent from 1988 to 1989, the black rate actually increased slightly.

At the same time, the Public Health Service reports a rise in low-weight births - no accident, as the decline in infant mortality is due to neonatal technologies that save babies who otherwise would be too small to live. Some 7 percent of all babies born in the United States weigh less than 5 pounds 8 ounces, the highest percentage in 13 years. That 7 percent accounts for 60 percent of all infant deaths in the U.S. and for 57 percent of the costs incurred for newborns (Washington Post, 2 April 1992).

The costs are staggering. As a Wall Street Journal headline trumpeted (1 May 1992): INFANT HEALTH WOES COST FIRMS AND EMPLOYEES $5.6 BILLION A YEAR. In extreme cases, the journal reports, medical costs for very low-birthweight babies have exceeded $1 million, as compared to $1,250 for the hospital care of a healthy newborn. The National Commission to Prevent Infant Mortality reports an average cost of about $21,000 to keep a low-birthweight baby alive.

An important cause of low-weight births is poor to nonexistent prenatal care. At the moment, 25 percent of pregnant women in the U.S. receive either no prenatal care or late care - the highest proportion in nearly twenty years. Teenagers and unmarried women are particularly unlikely to get care, yet they account for 27 percent of all births. What does it cost to give prenatal care to a pregnant woman? About $500. And for that you usually get a healthy baby.
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Author:Nelson, Hilde L.
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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