AUGUSTA — Maine’s infant mortality rate has been plummeting over the past three years and now is nearly half the national average, giving the state by far the lowest rate in the country, the Maine Department of Human Services announced Monday.
State Health Officer Dr. Dora Anne Mills went one step further and declared Maine’s rate “is lower than any other country in the world.”
Major reasons offered for Maine’s progress included a decline in the three most common causes of infant deaths in the state over the last 15 years: sudden infant death syndrome, better treatment of premature births, and early screening for treatable genetic diseases.
“Reducing infant mortality is one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century,” Mills said in a statement. “In Maine in 1900, one in every eight infants died in their first year of life. As of 1997, we have reduced this by over 99 percent to one in 270 infants.”
The number of infant deaths per 1,000 live births in Maine fell from 6.5 in 1995 to 4.4 in 1996 and 3.7 in 1997, or from 13th lowest in the United States in 1995 to the lowest last year, the department said.
The 1997 ranking is based on provisional numbers, but Mills said she did not expect Maine’s top finish to be threatened. The U.S. average was 7.0, with the second lowest state, Massachusetts, coming in at 4.3.
To arrive at an international ranking, Mill used a United Nations table of 1996 infant mortality rates in 24 industrialized countries, including the United States.
At the time, Singapore and Japan were the lowest with 3.8 deaths per 1,000 births, followed by Finland, Sweden, Norway and Hong Kong with 4.0.
Although comparable international data for 1997 was not available, Mills again doubted the figures would change much.
Sandy Smith of the National Center for Health Statistics was a bit more cautious. She noted Maine’s population size is small, so it would not take much to radically change its rate.
“Basically, every year, countries that are improving, kind of improve [in subsequent years], so it’s not 100 percent comparable to use different data years for different countries, but it looks like, with the new rate for Maine, it may well be lower,” Smith said.
Regardless of whether Maine edges out Singapore, the state’s rate “is darned good anyway you look at it,” she said.
Childhood immunizations and improved prenatal care and nutrition helped lower Maine’s rate, Mills said. Maine has one of the highest rates of pregnant women receiving early prenatal care because Medicaid covers about 40 percent of them and physicians are willing to accept the insurance, she said.
More than $13 million worth of food is distributed every year in Maine to pregnant women and infants through 115 clinics statewide participating in the Bureau of Health’s Women, Infants and Children program.
Over the last 15 years, Maine has developed a system of neonatal intensive care units with a transportation system linking them to community hospitals.
The state also has instituted a system of home visitations by nurses to families of newborns in many areas of the state, Mills said.
Immunizations help lower mortality The Associated Press
Here are the reasons given by the Maine Department of Human Services to help explain why the state’s infant mortality rate has dropped:
Improved prenatal care.
Improved support for pregnant women and young children.
Specific reasons the rate has declined so much in the last three years:
Sudden infant death syndrome: Increased knowledge about the disease and state efforts to educate new parents are credited with cutting the number of victims by about 70 percent in 10 years. Placing infants on their backs when they sleep and eliminating their exposure to secondhand smoke are two main ways to prevent SIDS.
Prematurity: Deaths due to premature deliveries have declined due to the linking of neonatal intensive care units to community hospitals, development of new therapies, and a reduction in adolescent pregnancies.
Congenital anomalies: Maine instituted a newborn screening program in 1965. Over the years, the percentage of newborns screened has risen, and 100 percent of all Maine newborns now are screened by a blood test for six common genetic diseases that can be treated if caught early. Also, more women are taking folic acid, a B vitamin that helps prevent birth defects.