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Infant Death Program, No Effect Yet

November 12, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ New figures show a program meant to reduce infant mortality had little impact in its early years. But federal officials said it’s too early to draw conclusions and barred researchers from releasing the data.

The $500 million Healthy Start program aimed to reduce infant mortality rates by 50 percent in poor communities, but data from 1992 through 1994 show the program had little or no impact.

Researchers from Mathematica Policy Research Inc. were set to present the preliminary data at Wednesday’s American Public Health Association conference in Indianapolis. Last week, federal officials ordered them not to, said Joanne Pfleiderer, spokeswoman for the Princeton, N.J.-based research firm.

The government is paying for the $4.8 million, five-year study of the program, which provides prenatal care for pregnant women and postnatal care for infants in areas with above-average infant mortality rates. Because it pays the bills, Pfleiderer said, the government has the right to control the release of data.

Federal officials argued that the early data are misleading. The program began in 1992 but was not fully implemented until 1995, said Dr. Earl Fox, acting administrator for the Health Resources Services Administration, which runs Healthy Start.

``We feel like it’s too early to expect to see a significant drop in infant mortality,″ he said. ``We want to make sure all the data is in before we report it.″

Infant mortality rates have dropped across the country, but early data from nine of the 15 original communities show rates dropped no faster in the targeted areas.

In the years preceding the program, these communities saw an average of 20.9 babies die before age 1 out of every 1,000 live births, said Kay Garvey, spokeswoman for the program. That dropped to 16.6 in the program’s first three years, she said, but a similar drop was recorded in areas not included in the program.

Participating communities had infant mortality rates above the national average when the program began in 1992. The program has since increased from the original 15 to include 62 sites.

Healthy Start has succeeded in identifying women whose babies are more likely to die, linked them to services and improved immunization rates, Fox said. ``Those are all positive,″ he said.

In May, Mathematica researchers presented early data that showed the program had no impact on infant mortality or the number of babies weighing too little at birth in Philadelphia and Chicago. There was a small impact in Birmingham, Ala., they said.

The original 15 sites are Baltimore; Birmingham, Ala.; Boston; Chicago; Cleveland; Detroit; New Orleans; New York; Oakland, Calif.; Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; Washington; northwest Indiana; the Pee Dee region of South Carolina; and several American Indian communities in the Midwest.

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