Task Force Has Plan To Lower Infant Mortality Rate In Columbus


On Wednesday, Columbus city leaders will announce a five-year plan to cut the community's staggering infant mortality rate. It's one of the worst in the nation.

For families, the death of a child can mean pain beyond description.

"She was so tiny," Erin Umberger said in a voice that hid a sob.

She and her husband, Ryan Raab, looked through a photograph album of their daughter, Sarah Rose.

Sarah had a tough life and a very short one.  She spent all 59 days of it in a newborn intensive care unit. At birth she weighed just a pound and a half. Her parents say Erin's pregnancy seemed fine, but Sarah was born four months too soon.

"The doctor really can't tell us why I went into labor or my water broke at 22 weeks," Erin said.

She said that their daughter thrived at first, and then Sarah developed an ailment common to many preemies. It's necrotizing enterocolitis or N.E.C. It kills the lining of the intestines.  She died in 12 hours.

"Our surgeons and physicians did everything that they could, but the disease can progress so quickly, that there was really no action to be taken.  And we were left with no choice but to take her off of life support. And let her go."

Doctors told Erin that feeding preemies breast milk, not formula, can make a difference.

"The best way to stop it is to prevent it," she stated.

So this former Buckeye, now an Arizona resident, teamed up with Jennifer Canvasser, a Michigan mom, to start the NEC Society. Jennifer had lost a son to the same ailment.  Their goal is to spread awareness and spread the word that breast milk is best to save lives. It's something doctors have researched at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

During an interview in 2010, Dr. Christina Valentine said that research showed breast milk makes a difference for premature babies.

She explained, "Human milk is like medicine for them.  It has important anti-infective properties."

Columbus is fortunate because it has one of a handful of human milk banks in the country, the OhioHealth Mothers Milk Bank. It supplies premature infants at Nationwide Children's Hospital with almost 20,000 ounces a year. It also ships the life-giving fluid to 18 states.  This week, it will get a new walk-in freezer and cooler to boost capacity to process, freeze, and ship 300,000 ounces of milk per year.  

But this is just part of the answer to saving babies.

The Infant Mortality Task Force has found that babies also die from factors related to poverty, housing, education, food security, and safety.  Member and City Council President Andy Ginther said they will announce a major investment in two or three neighborhoods to try to save more tiny lives, then expand it as they learn what works best.

"Over the next 5 years we're going to be adding neighborhoods. It's not as if we're going to leave neighborhoods we start in. These neighborhoods present our greatest opportunity, but also our greatest need," Ginther said.

At the same time, he said they will urge parents countywide to put babies to sleep on their backs, and make sure that parents strap them into car seats correctly.

Yesterday, Ginther, and members of OhioHealth and the Community Shelter Board showed off a new truck cab for the Wellness on Wheels van. In the past, the van has visited schools to provide prenatal care to expectant mothers.  Now, it will also visit homeless shelters and neighborhoods.

Erin supports her home town's plan.

"We're absolutely thrilled that the city is doing what's needed to protect the most fragile among us," she said.

Two to three babies die each week in Columbus before their first birthdays...enough babies to fill nine kindergarten classes.  And African-American babies are up to three times more likely to die before their first birthday.

The task force hopes to cut the death rate by forty percent.


NEC Society

Greater Columbus Infant Mortality Task Force