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Study: Death Rate Drops Among American Indian Babies But Remains High

October 22, 1991

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ American Indian babies are more likely to survive infancy, but their chance of dying is still more than twice that of newborns nationwide, a study of an Oregon tribe suggests.

The mysterious malady known as crib death, or sudden infant death syndrome, accounts for most of the higher death rate among Indian newborns in the study, being published in Wednesday’s Journal of the American Medical Association.

″The infant mortality rate, while lower in each decade since the 1940s, was still 2.6 times the national rate in the 1980s,″ said the researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, and the federal Indian Health Service.

The study dealt with the Warm Springs Indian tribe in central Oregon. The 3,200-member tribe - which produces forest products and operates a popular hot springs resort - enjoys a higher standard of living than most of the more than 300 Indian tribes nationwide, the researchers said.

UCLA’s Dr. Ray Nakamura and colleagues found the infant mortality rate at the reservation dropped dramatically from 119.8 deaths per 1,000 live births in the 1940s to 27.2 deaths per 1,000 births in the 1980s.

The overall infant mortality rate for the United States in the mid-1980s was 10.5 deaths per 1,000 live births. Doctors consider infant mortality rates to be a standard measure of a population’s health.

The study credited control of pneumonia and diarrhea for much of the decline in infant mortality at Warm Springs.

The researchers found sudden infant death syndrome kills 12.7 Indian babies out of every 1,000 born alive, compared with a national average of 2.3 SIDS deaths per 1,000 live births.

Crib death occurs when babies suddenly stop breathing during sleep. Its cause remains unknown, but it is most common among poor babies and those born to young or single mothers and mothers who use drugs, the researchers said.

Substance abuse and out-of-wedlock births are common among Warm Springs Indians despite their relative prosperity.

Many mothers receive public assistance. The teen-age pregnancy rate is about three times Oregon’s average. Two-fifths of all deliveries are to unwed mothers. Thirty percent of pregnant women are alcohol or drug abusers, and one-fourth smoked cigarettes during pregnancy.

Warm Springs authorities who saw the study told the researchers they would make improved health care their top priority, ″with the goal of becoming the healthiest community in Indian country by the year 2000.″

″Other American Indian communities with high infant mortality may respond in a similar way if they are presented with information about their own mortality experience,″ the study concluded.

Co-authors of the study were Richard King and Dr. Robert Oye of UCLA, and Ernest Kimball and Dr. Steven Helgerson of the Indian Health Service.

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