A few weeks back, the topic of death statistics was discussed, and because deaths per year are relatively rare occurrences, the scale that is used is deaths per 100,000 population. Using that scale, the numbers look like whole numbers, which people like better than fractions or decimals. When we see that traffic deaths are at about 13 per 100,000 population while deaths from heart disease are at about 240 per 100,000, we can get a sense of the scale difference and it's easier to read than saying .013% and .24%. People get confused when both decimals and percentages are combined. I know this from experience in the classroom. When I teach about this, I ask the class what the legal limit for blood alcohol is, and someone will always volunteer "point oh eight", or .08, when it's actually .08%. It would be clearer if we said that 80 parts alcohol per 100,000 parts blood by volume is the limit, as it would avoid this percent AND decimal confusion.
One death statistic is kept on a different scale, and that is infant mortality, where the scale is per 1,000 live births. The definition of infant mortality is how many babies are born live but do not see their first birthday. As you might expect, in general terms, the more prosperous a country is, the lower their infant mortality rate. On the current CIA World Fact Book list of 221 countries, here are the best five for 2007.
1. Singapore: 2.30 per 1,000 live births
2. Sweden: 2.76 per 1,000 live births
3. Japan: 2.80 per 1,000 live births
4. Hong Kong: 2.94 per 1,000 live births
5. Iceland: 3.27 per 1,000 live births
The United States currently ranks 42nd, at 6.37 per 1,000. This puts us between South Korea and Croatia. We lag behind every country that can be considered "industrialized".
People like ranking systems, but they skew the data. 42nd sounds bad, and while it certainly shows there is room for improvement, there are ways to present this information that are more positive. The world average in 2007, for example, is 43.52 infant deaths per 1,000 live births. There are twelve countries in the world, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa but also in Afghanistan, where the rates are over 100 per 1,000 live births.
Infant mortality rates in the United States have improved dramatically over the last century. In the picture to the left, the good looking guy in the odd looking shirt is the gosh darn pater familias, and the funny looking bald headed kid is Matty Boy about a half century ago.
[Who am I kidding? Even bald-headed, 50 years ago I was completely adorable.]
In the 1950's, the U.S. infant mortality rate was around 40 per 1,000 live births, and I was almost one of the 40. I had a bout of bronchiolitis, the inflammation of small blood vessels in the lungs. There was no treatment then, and after some options that didn't show much improvement were tried, there is still no treatment today. It's a watch and wait situation, and isn't life threatening unless it causes a bout of pneumonia. For me, it caused a bout of pneumonia. I was fed through a tube in my foot for a few days, but I pulled through.
I don't want this thought of as "spin", but other ways of looking at the data. There are a lot of positive trends in these numbers over the years, and though we should definitely try to improve the situation, it's not as though we have rates that rival the poorest nations, even in the states where the numbers are worst. (Several Southern states and Washington DC have infant mortality rates around 11 or 12 per 1,000. Not good, but not third world level bad, either.)
But I would like to look at the numbers one more way. 6.37 per 1,000 is the same as 637 per 100,000; just multiply both the rate and the scale by 100.
Infant mortality is worse than cancer and heart disease combined in the general population.
Statistically, it's more dangerous to be a baby under one year old in the U.S. than it is to be an American soldier in Iraq for a year.
There's no Lou Dobbs or Nancy Grace on TV to beat us over the head about this, but infant mortality should be a serious national priority. Other countries have shown us that we can do a lot better. All we need is the political will.
Welcome to Bolivia! Their 2007 infant mortality rate is 50.43 per 1,000 live births. That is roughly equal to the U.S. rate 60 years ago.