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Why are so many black babies in Baltimore dying in their sleep?

It’s an alarming and perplexing question for Baltimore health officials who are searching for answers. During December to January, six infants died in six weeks – one baby each week. Five babies were black, and one infant was mixed-race. It’s an unprecedented spike in infant deaths and health officials are deeply concerned – and for good reason.

According to The Baltimore Sun, “there were a high of 27 such deaths in 2009, but that dropped to seven in 2016 after the education campaign. But there has been an uptick in recent years — 17 deaths in 2017 and 13 last year.”

So why Baltimore?

Here’s the concern: Health officials don’t know why these babies are dying at higher rates but it’s a critical health problem in Baltimore’s inner city. I believe Baltimore health officials are managing this disturbing trend with immediate attention and taking it seriously.

Most mothers know about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), the unexplained death of infants, usually during sleep, when a baby is less than a year old. SIDS is sometimes known as crib death because the infants often die in their cribs. Health officials say there are usually no warning signs or clear reasons and there is no 100% way to prevent SIDS, but there are ways to reduce the risk. But health officials in Baltimore aren’t necessarily placing a label on this health emergency.

Baltimore Health Commissioner and pediatrician Dr. Letitia Dzirasa told The Baltimore Sun there may need to be more aggressive messaging for mothers – and new mothers in particular – about caring for their babies.

Here’s how The Baltimore Sun explains it:

“In the case of infant deaths, some moms have heard the messages about the proper sleep method for a baby — alone, on their back, in a crib and in household where people don’t smoke, also known as the A-B-C-D method. But they need reminders of the dangers so they don’t slip when they are tired or not being so vigilant. It only takes one time to do it wrong and put a baby at risk.”

Dr. Dzirasa joined Baltimore City government as the Commissioner of Health in March 2019, according to the city’s website. A Johns Hopkins trained pediatrician and a Nashville Meharry Medical College graduate specializing in pediatrics, Dr. Dzirasa’s interests include obesity management and prevention, trauma informed care in children and adolescents, and expanded use of technology to improve the quality of health for children and adults.

I’m sure many Baltimore mothers are counting on Dr. Dzirasa, her team of doctors, and her colleagues, to figure out why these babies are dying at alarming rates – and I believe that in time these experienced physicians will provide Baltimore residents with the answers they need and deserve.

“We watch the trends really carefully and we know when there are any deaths,” said Rebecca Dineen, assistant health commissioner for the Baltimore’s Bureau of Maternal and Child Health, told The Washington Post. “It obviously alarmed us and we wanted to do something immediately.”

Dineen has 20 years of experience providing health care in 14 fourteen countries on three continents in maternal and child health, family planning, HIV/AIDS, malaria, and primary health care programs, according to the city’s website. Her experience includes work in both the public and private sectors. She earned a master of science in Health Policy and Management from the Harvard School of Public Health in 1998 and her undergraduate degree in Philosophy from Northwestern University in 1989.

I mention Dzirasa and Dineen’s impressive medical credentials because their vast experiences in the health care field and, pediatrics in particular, matters: It means that Baltimore has a gifted and committed cadre of doctors who understand these unprecedented infant mortality trends in urban communities.

Consider this: It’s been reported that by the time Dzirasa was five years old, she knew she wanted to be a doctor. And today, she’s drawing on her considerable medical guidance from Johns Hopkins and Meharry — the prominent historically black college in Nashville —  to help save more Baltimore babies.

What do you think?

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