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Florida's babies: Fewer are dying now

Florida's high infant mortality rate, a tragic and embarrassing statistic, has improved in the two years since the state expanded health care for poor pregnant women.

Last year, Florida finally cut the rate of infant deaths to equal that of the United States as a whole _ for the first time in at least two decades and perhaps ever. According to a report released Tuesday, the rate has dropped 10 percent since 1990, to 8.5 deaths per 1,000 Florida babies.

"We are talking about 500 lives, children that are here today that would not have been here if we had not reduced that number," said Gov. Lawton Chiles. "That is proof positive that our financial commitment to prenatal and infant health care has paid off in dollars and lives saved."

For Chiles, it was an occasion to salute his Healthy Start program for prenatal care and ask child-care advocates and legislators to support a $20-million budget increase for the program.

No one can absolutely say that Healthy Start cut the mortality rate.

But evidence suggests Chiles' program has helped. Doctors say the best way to prevent the death of babies before their first birthday is better prenatal care to spot possible problem births and educate women about nutrition and other healthy activities that improve their babies' chance of survival.

Leading causes of infant mortality are low birth weight, birthdefects, infections late in pregnancy and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which doctors say sometimes occurs because a mother smokes or uses drugs while pregnant.

"We estimate that (Healthy Start) has saved us $200-million already" in costs to care for babies who would have been born seriously ill, Chiles told a group of children and child-care advocates at a rally inside the Capitol.

Healthy Start tries to ensure every pregnant woman and her baby receive prenatal care to see if the child is at risk of developing problems after birth. Services include health screenings, home visits, nutrition counseling, child-birth and parenting education, immunizations and other primary care after the child is born.

The state's health officer hailed the numbers as a very good drop. Dr. Charles Mahan attributed the recent decline in Florida to the state's improved prenatal health program.

But Mahan noted a troubling statistic that shows African-American babies continue to die at a higher rate than white babies. The death rate for white infants was 6.7 per 1,000 babies, while the rate for black infants was 13.5 _ a gap seen in other states and throughout the country.

Likely reasons for the racial differences are white children tend to be born into families with higher income, meaning their mothers usually have access to better health care, Mahan said.

Healthy Start is closing the gap for lower income families, and with more money, the infant mortality rate will improve, Chiles said.

"We cannot afford to let our commitment lapse," he said.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.