Maryland's Baby Health Trends Still Cause for Concern

By ANDY ZIEMINSKI, Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS - Maryland's rates of teen births and infant mortality have both dropped since 1997, but the number of underweight babies born in the state in the same time has gone up, according to a report presented Tuesday to lawmakers.

But even the good news in the report was tempered by racial disparities, with blacks lagging in every category and Hispanic teens giving birth at rates far above the state average.

"It looks like a lot of progress has been made. But clearly there's more that can be done," said Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, D-Montgomery, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Children, Youth and Families, which received the report.

The increase in low-birthweight babies is troubling, officials told the committee, because those infants can have more serious health problems that can cost parents, hospitals and taxpayers thousands of extra dollars.

Delivering an underweight baby costs a hospital about $65,000, compared to $10,000 for a regular-weight baby, said Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., D-Montgomery. Additional costs pile up for critical care and the host of conditions that low-birthweight babies are more likely to develop later on.

Underweight babies—defined as 5.5 pounds or less—run a higher risk of cerebral palsy, cognitive impairment and respiratory and behavioral problems as they grow older, said Department of Disabilities Secretary Catherine A. Raggio.

Statewide, 9.4 percent of births in 2006 were underweight, up from 8.8 percent in 1997. Maryland was consistently higher than the national average in years for which national numbers were available.

Within the state, Baltimore City and Prince George's, Somerset, Wicomico and Dorchester counties posted the highest rates of underweight births from 2000-2005, according to the report.

While underweight births were rising, the infant mortality rate fell from 8.6 deaths in every 1,000 births in 1997 to 7.9 deaths per 1,000 in 2006. Births to teens dropped from 43.9 to 33.6 per 1,000, the report said.

The report focused on teen births, infant mortality and low birthweight because those are "three unambiguous measures of performance" in ensuring babies are born healthy, said state Health Secretary John M. Colmers.

While teen birth and infant mortality rates improved overall, serious discrepancies remain when they are broken down by race.

Infant mortality affected blacks at about twice the rate for all races. The leading causes of infant mortality include birth defects as well as complications that can be the result of anything from the parents' genetics to substance abuse.

Madaleno pointed to one "amazing" statistic showing that babies born to black women with college degrees from 2002 to 2004 were more likely to die as infants than babies born to white women without a high school diploma.

"Frankly, we don't know what's going on," Colmers said, adding that high mortality among black infants was a nationwide problem, not one unique to Maryland.

While the teen birth rate fell to 3.4 percent, the rate among Hispanics skyrocketed. In 2006, nearly one in 10 Hispanic girls between 15 and 19 had a baby, according to the report.

Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez, D-Montgomery, called it "horrible news for the Latino community."

The report also included recommendations for policymakers, with a special emphasis on expanding teen pregnancy prevention programs and perinatal care services throughout the state. It did not estimate what those recommendations might cost at a time when Maryland is facing a $1.5 billion deficit.

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