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Report: US Infant Mortality Rate Twice That of Other Wealthy Nations

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The United States has a higher infant mortality rate than other similarly wealthy countries, a report requested by the US government showed Wednesday.

With 32.7 deaths for every 100,000 live births, the US infant mortality rate more than doubles that of Sweden and Japan, according to the report. Countries similar to the US have infant mortality rates between 15 and 25 deaths for every 100,000 births.

The US also has a high death rate for children under 5 and a low birth rate compared to other countries.

The 404-page report by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine provided an in-depth overview of the health of Americans, and compared those findings with those of 16 other wealthy nations. The grim conclusion: Americans are less healthy and dying younger than people in similar countries. 

“I hear statistics like that and I think, aren’t we supposed to be better?” asks pediatrician Gwenn O’Keeffe, M.D., author, health journalist, and CEO of Pediatrics Now. “Why don’t we have universal coverage? Why don’t we have that low death rate? We’re going backward.”

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The US has been known to have a low birth rate and higher infant mortality rate for some time, says Ana Diez Roux, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

“There are obviously multiple sets of factors working together,” she says. “This is so systemic and pervasive and we didn’t think the public is really aware of the magnitude of this problem.”

Diez Roux, a member of the panel that produced the report, says that the exact cause of the high infant mortality rate is unclear and is the result of deeply rooted problems in the country’s culture and health care industry. The top cause of infant death is birth defects, followed by prematurity/low birth weight, according to the March of Dimes.

The infant mortality rate is not explained away by ethnic diversity, she says. While US minorities do tend to have a higher infant mortality rate, non-Hispanic white Americans were less healthy across the board than whites in other wealthy countries. 

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“Those first three months of life are key. We have to get those babies immunized and keep them healthy and strong,” says Dr. O’Keeffe, a member of Parenting's Editorial Advisory Board. “In tough economic times, we have to wonder if people are either not spending money on prenatal care, unable to get access to prenatal care, or unable to make good family planning decisions. We have to worry about people not immunizing in the first month, if kids are getting sick and exposed to stuff.”

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While the US’s high infant mortality rate is shocking, the country’s health crisis hardly stops at birth. 

Americans of all ages fared worse than the 16 other rich countries – Canada, Japan, Australia and 13 European countries – in a number of other areas: injury and homicide rates, teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disesases, HIV infection and AIDS, drug abuse, and heart and lung disease. Two-thirds of Americans are considered overweight or obese. 

“This can’t be traced to the health care system,” says Diez Roux. “It’s much more than the health care system.”

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