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What a Healthy Start means

To understand why so many babies start life without much chance for a bright future, one only needs to study the numbers in Pinellas County:

In one neighborhood, 77 percent of all recent births were to single mothers. Thirty percent of the newborns had mothers age 18 or younger. About 12 percent of the babies weighed less than 5{ pounds.

In other neighborhoods, nearly half the pregnant women received no prenatal care until the second trimester or later. The most frequent excuses given for not seeking medical attention sooner were that the women couldn't afford it and that they had no transportation.

The Healthy Start Coalition in Pinellas has evaluated such data and rightly concluded the efforts of the group are even more critical than first realized. The coalition is using an impressive collection of information that includes its own surveys, Census tracts and Juvenile Welfare Board data to plan its strategy for reaching the areas where the most mothers are in the most need of prenatal care.

One of dozens in the state born of Gov. Lawton Chiles' goal to help more babies come into the world healthy, the coalition is composed of doctors and other health professionals, social service providers and members of the public. Its premise is simple and sensible: screen all pregnant women and newborns for factors that might put them at risk and then make sure they have access to appropriate health care and other services.

Defining neighborhoods of greatest need is a valuable tool for building healthier babies. So is raising public awareness about the need for prenatal care, about the disad-

vantage for babies born without benefit of medical or other necessary support.

Babies whose mothers received no early or regular care risk impaired physical, mental, emotional and social development. Mothers who don't learn the importance of nurturing strong attachments to their babies, for instance, can raise children whose insecurities and helplessness can lead to intellectual deficiencies.

Because teenagers are the most likely to go without proper care and be otherwise ill-equipped for parenthood, an important way to send these messages is through school-based health clinics. Such clinics have been blocked in many school districts because of misguided opposition to the dispensing of birth control, but they could be a key to helping pregnant teens take care of themselves and their babies.

Since the Legislature launched the program two years ago, babies all over the state are off to a Healthy Start, which means they have better chances for healthy lives. As the good work of the Pinellas coalition has discovered, there are many, many more who could use that chance.