DHS Releases New Reports on Infant Deaths in Wisconsin

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) released two new reports on birth outcomes that continue to shed light on how to best reduce and address significant disparities in infant deaths across Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Perinatal Periods of Risk (PPOR) reports analyze the factors that contribute to inequalities in fetal and infant mortality to help focus public health prevention efforts. Data from the DHS Maternal and Infant Mortality Prevention Unit show Wisconsin’s overall infant mortality rate, which represents the number of infant deaths per 1,000 live births, was 5.7 for 2019-2021. However, the data continue to show troubling disparities, with non-Hispanic Black infants three times more likely to die before their first birthdays than non-Hispanic white infants. During those same years, the infant mortality rate for American Indian or Alaska Native infants was 1.5 times the rate for non-Hispanic white infants

“The death of any child is a tragedy. When these deaths are preventable, we have a responsibility to take action,” said DHS Secretary-designee Kirsten Johnson. “In public health, we use data as our guide, to find patterns and use that information to prioritize strategies that leaders and our communities can take to protect our health. These reports show where progress has been made and where we can invest further to build on what works. By addressing these disparities and improving access to high-quality health care, among other measures, we are working to make sure all families have the opportunity to thrive.”

The PPOR reports describe factors contributing to infant mortality inequities impacting non-Hispanic Black, American Indian, and Alaskan Native communities in Wisconsin. The results found two key areas of focus to reduce inequities: low birthweight and sudden unexpected infant death (SUID), a term used to describe the death of an infant less than 365 days old in which the cause of death is not clear before investigation. Wisconsin residents experiencing these higher infant mortality rates are those most likely to be impacted by access to care, lack of reproductive autonomy, and chronic stress related to things like poverty, food and housing insecurity, and racism. These factors play a role in low birthweight and SUID by not only impacting how the body functions, but also creating barriers to resources that can reduce the likelihood of these outcomes.

“Understanding what causes inequities in fetal and infant deaths is essential to focusing prevention efforts,” said Dr. Jasmine Zapata, DHS Chief Medical Officer for Community Health Promotion and State Epidemiologist for Maternal and Child Health and Chronic Diseases. “The data continue to show that to address these leading causes of infant death, a comprehensive approach is needed that includes increasing funding for maternal and infant health programs, expanding access to high-quality health care services, and addressing racial bias in health care to ensure that patients receive appropriate and respectful care tailored to their needs.”

The reports also emphasize the need for approaches that create systemic change and recognize past and current systemic harms and their impacts on health. DHS further recommends future efforts focus on the areas identified by these reports to address health disparities and inequities in maternal and infant health and emphasizes the need for trauma-informed prevention efforts that include voices from impacted communities.

Governor Evers has launched multiple efforts to address infant mortality throughout his administration. In his 2019-2021 biennial budget, Gov. Evers introduced the “Healthy Women, Healthy Babies” initiative which aimed to improve access to preventive care, support healthier pregnancies and births, and address racial disparities in maternal and child health. The initiative included increased funding for the Women’s Health Block Grant and access to family planning services and cancer screenings. The Governor’s 2021-2023 biennial budget again recommended annual funding for grants to address those most affect by infant and maternal mortality. Similar proposals were recently stripped from the Governor’s 2023-2025 biennial budget. Governor Evers has also recommended extending Medicaid eligibility following the birth of a baby to 12 months. Extending postpartum coverage would improve continuity of care and reduce disparities in postpartum follow-up care for chronic conditions associated with mortality rates.

As part of the comprehensive approach to addressing infant mortality, DHS has funded numerous partners across the state to address these issues. Recently, sixteen million dollars in federal funding was dedicated to maternal and child health equity initiatives intended to combat maternal and infant mortality. Work is underway to address food security, educate around safe sleep, provide breastfeeding support, and train additional doulas. DHS also established a Maternal and Infant Mortality Prevention Unit, which is focused on partnering with communities across the state to improve birth outcomes and the health of people who may become pregnant. Included are efforts to fund maternal and child health equity initiatives intended to combat maternal and infant mortality at the community and systems-level and improve the health of all families across Wisconsin. 

Learn more about Wisconsin’s maternal and infant mortality prevention efforts.