High Infant Mortality Prompts Campaign

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Sara Topping, president of the East End Birth Network, with her son Gardiner, age 1. She also has twin boys age 3.

When Sara Topping of Southampton and several other women with whom she worked locally as a “birth activist” learned that Suffolk County — and eastern Southampton Town in particular — had one of the highest rates of infant mortality in New York State, they decided they had to do something about it.

“We were all shocked,” said Ms. Topping, who is a massage therapist, doula and president of the recently founded East End Birth Network. “For me personally, it was something I couldn’t just sit around and wait for something to happen.”

The infant death rate in Southampton Town east of the Shinnecock Canal was 8.1 to 10.1 per 1,000 live births according to the Suffolk County Community Health Assessment 2014-2017, a report prepared last year by the county’s Department of Health Services. The statistic was based on state data from 2008 to 2010.

West of the canal, the rate was less than 2 per 1,000 as it was in East Hampton Town and Southold Town, except in the area of Greenport, where the rate was 4.1 to 6 per 1,000 live births. Riverhead’s rate was between 6.1 and 8.0 deaths per 1,000 live births.

Only small areas centered in Wyandanch, Port Jefferson and Bohemia had the same rate as eastern Southampton Town from 2008 to 2010.

One of the steps Ms. Topping and her colleagues took was to meet with Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. about the issue. Checking into any pertinent legislation that might have been helpful, she explained, he learned that a bill had been proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives called the “Preventing Maternal Deaths Act of 2017.”

It was not aimed at infant mortality directly but the deaths of women during childbirth. Ms. Topping and her friends considered that tragedy an important aspect of the infant mortality issue.

“We feel greatly that, if you take care of mothers, you’re helping their babies,” Ms. Topping said.

The bill (HR 1318) would provide federal grants to states to establish maternal mortality review committees, which would set up procedures to collect and analyze data on maternal deaths.

Currently, New York State keeps no records that show whether or not a mother’s death was the result of a hemorrhage or any other birth-related condition, according to Ms. Topping and the East End Birth Network.

Mr. Thiele has officially urged the House to pass and the president to sign the bill with a memorializing resolution he recently introduced in the State Assembly.

“The United States has the highest maternal mortality rate out of any developed nation in the world, and it’s rising,” Mr. Thiele said. “Sustaining the health of mothers throughout the stages of pregnancy and childbirth and finding ways to reduce these tragedies is paramount. By introducing this resolution, I am hoping that the necessary steps will be taken by Congress and New York State to address this dire reality.”

The United States, along with North Korea and Zimbabwe, Ms. Topping said, “is one of 13 countries with a rising maternal mortality rate. It’s a shocking statistic and one that should alarm each of us. And we feel that the best way to help babies is to help their mothers.”

She said she had heard no explanations for the high infant death rate in eastern Southampton Town, at least as it was reported by the state from 2008 to 2010.

“Assemblyman Thiele has taken an important first step in identifying some basic organization tools to begin to address these appalling statistics, she said. We are grateful to him for his support and for taking action on this urgent health issue.”

County Legislator Bridget Fleming has also pledged her support to the group, Ms. Topping said.

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Peter Boody is news editor of The Sag Harbor Express. Previously he was the editor of the Southampton Press for many years and also edited several other papers, including the Shelter Island Reporter and the East Hampton Press, of which he was founding editor. He was a regular correspondent for the New York Times Long Island section and wrote the novel “Thomas Jefferson, Rachel & Me.”