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Baby deaths rise in NY for first time in four years

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Infant deaths in the city rose slightly last year reversing years of steady decline, according to statistics released by the city's Health Department yesterday.

The citywide infant mortality rate was 6.5 for every 1,000 births in 2003, representing 807 deaths of the 124,345 tots born. It is the first rise since 1999.

In 2002, the rate was 6.0, or 742 baby deaths out of the 122,937 children born.

The 65 additional infant deaths last year represented an 8 percent increase.

Health officials noted Big Apple infant mortality is still lower than the 7.0 national average rate, but said they are studying the hike.

Fort Greene, Brooklyn, had the highest infant mortality rate with 11.0. Actual baby deaths were 24. In Jamaica East, the rate was 10.3 with 45 deaths, and Tremont in The Bronx had a rate of 10.2 with 45 deaths.

The city's lowest rates came from Flushing, Queens, at 2.0 or nine actual deaths. Other areas with low rates included Manhattan's Kips Bay with 2.3 (seven deaths) and Brooklyn's Bay Ridge with a rate of 2.8 (11 deaths).

"Any infant death is tragic," said Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden.

"Though year-to-year fluctuations are expected, we are reviewing the pattern of infant deaths in 2003, particularly in areas where there were larger increases, such as The Bronx."

His aides said the increase didn't constitute a trend.

"We don't believe that we have any reason to think that the decline has been reversed," said Deputy Commissioner Mary Bassett.

Preliminary analyses by city officials suggested that increases in baby deaths this year occurred among very low birth weight children. Those kids accounted for more than half of all baby deaths last year.

Oscar Chamudes, a pediatrician who has treated city kids for 30 years, agreed that the 8 percent increase was no cause for alarm.

"I haven't seen anything about the mortality rates in New York City that suggest anything unusual," Chamudes said.

Chamudes noted that some minority communities don't always have access to the latest technology.

The city's African-American neighborhoods continue to be hard-hit by infant mortality, but targeted efforts have paid off, particularly in Central Harlem, where the rates have moved from double digits to single digits. But last year in Central Harlem there was a spike from 6.2 (12 deaths), to 7.3, or (14 deaths).

The City Council has put millions of dollars into a reduction program. Last year, $5 million was committed to the effort.

City officials maintained that their approach of targeting communities for services is working to keep the rates down and they said the figures this year did not give them any reason to change anything.

Earlier this year, city officials began a newborn home visit program.

"We have a program where [we] pay a visit to every first-time mother. In Jamaica and in Central Harlem [there is a] nurse-family partnership aimed at high-risk mothers and they followed up for up to two years," Bassett said. "We're sticking with our programs, which target communities with special risks."

The city has set a goal of bringing down the infant mortality rate to 5.0 by the year 2008 and has been encouraging mothers to get prenatal care, breast-feed, put their children to sleep on their backs and quit smoking.

Copyright 2004 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

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