Babies are Dying in Rochester at Twice the National Average. Why?

Nov 7, 2014, 11:13 AM, Posted by Maria Hinojosa

Two medical professionals talk with a disabled child who sits on his mother's lap.

Rochester, N.Y., is the birthplace of Xerox, Bausch & Lomb, and Kodak, and home to two top-ranked research institutions, the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology. Nevertheless, babies die in this upstate New York city at a rate two times higher than the national average, and Rochester’s children of color are three times more likely than white infants to die before their first birthday. Why?

To come up with some answers, Futuro visited Rochester as part of its America by the Numbers series, made in partnership with Boston public TV station WGBH (check your local PBS and World Channel listings to see the series). We went knowing that the U.S. as a whole ranks 56th in the world for infant mortality, by far the lowest of any industrialized nation, despite the fact that we spend more on health care per capita than any other country, and the largest portion goes towards pregnancy and childbirth. This makes Rochester’s statistics even more tragic—an outlier in an outlier.

The overriding issue for the city’s dismal infant mortality rate is poverty. It is the fifth poorest city in the nation; 31.1 percent of Rochester’s residents live below the poverty level. The Latino and African-American populations that make up some 24 percent of the city’s population have it particularly hard, with 36 percent of African-Americans and 46 percent of Latino residents living in poverty. Poverty means chronic stress, poor nutrition and lack of access to good medical care—all high risk factors for infant mortality.

Yolanda Sayres, an outreach coordinator for the Perinatal Network of Monroe County, where Rochester is located, spends a lot of time in the city’s most underserved neighborhoods, and says at least half of the people she meets know someone who has lost a baby. Sasha Fontanez is just one of these too many tragic stories. She had her first child when she was 18, a healthy girl. But her second daughter, nicknamed Annie Bannie, died in her sleep less than four months after she was born.

Annie was one of 1,700 annual U.S. victims of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS—a catchall term for unexplained crib deaths of babies who are under 1 year of age. Still struggling to cope with this sudden and tragic loss, Sasha says she is constantly anxious about the health of her remaining family members. “I don’t sleep. I watch everybody in the house sleep, make sure everybody is breathing.”

The result of our investigation is the documentary “Surviving Year One.”  I will be hosting a screening of “Surviving Year One” in Rochester on November 13 at 6:30 p.m., followed by panel discussions with several of the people featured in the documentary, including Yolanda Sayres and Sasha Fontanez, and Jeff Kaczorowski, MD, founder of the Rochester-based non-profit The Children’s Agenda. We will discuss not just Rochester’s infant mortality problem, but some of the solutions being applied.

The screening is free and open to the public and is being presented in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and WXXI, Rochester’s public TV station. I hope the program leads to a nationwide dialogue that will lead to a change in this particular American number. To get the conversation started, please share your thoughts in the comments.

The Futuro Media Group is an independent nonprofit organization producing multimedia journalism that explores and gives a critical voice to the diversity of the American experience. Based in Harlem and founded in 2010 by award-winning journalist Maria Hinojosa, Futuro Media Group is committed to telling stories often overlooked by mainstream media.

Find more information at futuromediagroup.org.