State News

N.C. rate of child deaths falls to lowest level

Posted September 14, 2009 10:02 a.m. EDT
Updated September 14, 2009 7:50 p.m. EDT

— Fewer North Carolina children died last year than the year before, sending the child death rate to an all-time recorded low, a state legislative panel announced Monday with data reflecting better prevention of automobile and fire fatalities.

The fatality rate for children ages 17 and under fell 5 percent during 2008 to 71 deaths per 100,000 children, according to state statistics released by the North Carolina Child Fatality Task Force.

The rate, based on 1,573 actual child deaths last year, compares to the 1,649 deaths in 2007, or a rate of 75.1 deaths per 100,000.

North Carolina has 2.2 million residents under age 18. While the 2007 rate represented an increase compared to the previous year, the overall rate has fallen by one-third since 1990.

Leaders of the panel, comprised of child advocates and researchers, law enforcement, human service officials and lawmakers, attributed the drop to the passage of child-safety legislation, increased state spending on child initiatives and parental awareness of dangers.

Given the current population, the two-decade decline means about 800 more children survive annually compared to the high of 107 deaths per 100,000 children back in 1991.

"We're very pleased," said Tom Vitaglione, co-chairman of the task force, which makes recommendations to the General Assembly on legislation to protect children. "That's encouraging stuff, but we still have a long way to go."

North Carolina is tied for 22nd in a ranking of the states' death rates for children up to age 14, according to 2005 statistics compiled by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

In the task force report, the number of infant fatalities, which comprise two-thirds of all child deaths, fell by 3.7 percent in 2008, led by a 9 percent drop in deaths related to premature deliveries and low birth weights. It wasn't immediately clear what caused the decline. Premature births have increased by 30 percent nationwide over the past two decades.

Panel members meeting Monday were surprised by a 39 percent increase in sudden infant death syndrome, from 98 deaths in 2007 to 136 last year.

“Studies are going on right now to find out what we should do,” Vitaglione said.

Vitaglione said the jump could be attributed to misreporting or less spending on public awareness campaigns.

"That's the thing with an education campaign – you have to sustain it, because new parents are coming along all the time," said Anna Bess Brown, program services director for the March of Dimes in North Carolina.

The number of motor vehicle-related deaths fell last year by 13 percent, from 142 deaths to 123. Fewer cars on the road due to higher gas prices and improved child booster seat and seat-belt laws lobbied for by the panel have helped reduce the rate, Vitaglione said.

“I remember laying across the bottom of the passenger side of the station wagon,” parent Elizabeth Kimzey said.

Kimzey said child booster seat and seat-belt laws were not in effect when she was a child.  As a parent, she always buckles her children up.

“All it takes is one time for something to go wrong. It wouldn't be worth (the risk),” Kimzey said.

Fire-related deaths fell by 29 percent, from 24 deaths to 17.

There were 18 poisoning deaths, which remains around the five-year average. Many of them are attributed to drug overdoses. There's been more concern about teens ingesting their parents' prescription drugs.

"Those numbers really pale in comparison to the number of (overdose) attempts," said Rep. Jennifer Weiss, D-Wake, a panel member, adding that parents need more educational information about keeping their prescriptions away from children.

Fifty-eight children died in homicides, compared to the five-year average of 63 victims. The report came on the same day as a 15-year-old pregnant girl was shot and killed as she waited at school bus stop in Charlotte.