Tag Archives: infant mortality

Covering infant mortality’s grip in South Carolina

Susan Heavey

About Susan Heavey

Susan Heavey, (@susanheavey) a Washington, D.C.-based journalist, is AHCJ’s topic leader on social determinants of health and curates related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on resources and tip sheets at determinants@healthjournalism.org.

Photo: sean dreilinger via Flickr

Photo: sean dreilinger via Flickr

Journalists Doug Pardue and Lauren Sausser of The Post and Courier in South Carolina almost saw their story, about tackling the perpetually high infant deaths in their southern state, slip away when officials released updated statistics that appeared to show the problem ebbing.

But a closer look at the data — and its geographical divide — showed that the overall numbers weren’t really what they seemed. What resulted when Pardue, part of the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning team this year, and Sausser, also an award-winning reporter, teamed up was a powerful investigative series on the tight hold of South Carolina’s infant mortality rate and a deeper look at where the state was getting it right, and where it wasn’t.

Here’s how they did it.

Reporter’s narrative illuminates little-researched birth defect

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

When Wisconsin State Journal reporter David Wahlberg investigated what appeared to be rural Wisconsin’s increase in gastroschisis, a rare birth defect in which the intestines grow outside of an infant’s body and must be replaced after delivery, the lack of institutional research, statistics or easy answers seemed to raise far more questions than it answered, particularly in relation to rural incidence and pesticide use.

Wahlberg’s solution to this roadblock is to dive headlong into the human component of the story. In a two-part narrative (Part 1, Part 2), he puts these larger questions on the back burner and instead follows a family, in real time, as they deliver an infant boy who had been diagnosed with the condition during an ultrasound. No amount of summary would do Wahlberg’s piece justice, so I encourage you to simply invest a few minutes and bury yourself in the details. You’ll exit with an understanding of the condition and the toll it takes that no amount of statistical analysis could match.

MJS finds attempts to improve infant mortality rates are fragmented

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

This year, a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel launched “Empty Cradles,” a yearlong reporting effort to find out why infant mortality is so high in the region and whether it must be that way. As we near the halfway point, their effort has already produced some powerful journalism and given new impetus to an issue that had been simmering, almost ignored, on the front burner all long.

Lakisha Stinson holds her newborn daughter, Rashyia, in their Milwaukee home. Stinson’s first daughter, Kelviana, died of sudden infant death syndrome in 2004. Infant mortality is a problem that plagues the Milwaukee area. Photo: Rick Wood/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Lakisha Stinson holds her daughter, Rashyia, in their Milwaukee home. Stinson’s first daughter, Kelviana, died of sudden infant death syndrome in 2004. Photo: Rick Wood/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

In their latest major installment, in which they explore potential solutions to the crisis (and the recent lack thereof), reporters Crocker Stephenson and Ben Poston sum up the reason for their investigation in two damning paragraphs.

In Central Harlem, babies once died at a rate twice that of Milwaukee. But through a unified effort, the community has slashed its infant mortality rate by 78% since 1990. The rate there is now about 6 deaths per 1,000 births, lower than the state of Wisconsin as a whole.

In Milwaukee – where tens of millions of tax dollars have been spent in the past decade – 11 out of every 1,000 infants die before their first birthday. The city continues to have one of the worst infant mortality rates in the nation, especially for African-Americans, whose babies die at a rate about 2.5 times that of whites.

The problem, it seems, is that while the state supports 110  infant mortality reduction initiatives, they have so far failed to coalesce into a united public health effort.

Milwaukee and a few other urban areas are looking to change that, starting with the Lifecourse Initiative for Healthy Families which began in 2009. Modeled on successful programs in places like Harlem, the effort seeks to address the full spectrum of social factors that lurk behind high mortality rates.

In an earlier installment, reporters Mark Johnson and Tia Ghose looked at a medical mystery: African Americans in the United States are at a much higher risk than white Americans to have premature births, babies with low birth weights and infant mortality.

A married, college-educated African-American woman faces worse odds than a white, unmarried woman who dropped out of high school.

For more on how the series came together, see the background article editor Greg Borowski wrote for AHCJ this spring. It’s a great explanation of how to take a problem that everyone regards and common knowledge and report it into a deep, engaging, yearlong series. For more on previous installments in the series, see our coverage from January.

Reporter looks at black infant mortality in Wis.

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Crocker Stephenson took a look at disparities in infant mortality in that area and explored both their cases and ramifications. In Wisconsin, black babies die at twice the rate of white babies, a finding which may just be the tip of the iceberg. For national and international comparisons, see the companion infographic. According to Stephenson, infant mortality rates are an early indicator of a community’s degeneration. When mortality rises, so do other dire indicators.

The bottom third – the group of ZIP codes with the most poverty and lowest college graduation rates – had the highest infant mortality rate.

It also had the highest premature death rate, chlamydia rate, HIV rate and teen birthrate.

It had the greatest percentage of low birth weights; preterm births; uninsured adults; people who hadn’t seen a dentist in a year; births to mothers who received no prenatal care during their first trimester; smokers; pregnant smokers; obesity; violent assaults within the past year; single-parent households; and children who tested positive for lead poisoning.

Milwaukee’s health commissioner called it a “crisis,” one that Stephenson found is as much a social matter as it is one of access to proper care. For more, see the “Problem Areas” section of the story.