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Native Sun News: Study shows high Indian infant death rate

The following story was written and reported by Jesse Abernathy, Native Sun News Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

PIERRE, SOUTH DAKOTA – Within the first month of being born, Native American babies in South Dakota have a two-to-one death rate in comparison to white babies. Within the first year, the odds of a Native American baby dying increase by 50% in comparison to their white counterparts.

Those are the disturbing findings of Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s Task Force on Infant Mortality. The results of the task force’s study were released in final report form in December. First Lady Linda Daugaard chaired the task force.

“Almost 80 South Dakota babies die each year before they reach their first birthday,” said Daugaard in the opening message of the final report. “This is simply unacceptable. The Governor made it a priority to reach out to South Dakota’s best experts to develop strategies to address this problem.”

The 27-member task force was appointed last May to examine the state’s infant mortality rate and recommend ways to reduce it.

Experts from across the state in the fields of medicine, behavioral health and social work – including several tribal representatives – comprised the governor’s task force. Infant mortality is considered to be a gold standard by which the general health of any particular population is measured, according to the report’s executive summary. On average, 11,500 babies are born annually in South Dakota.

Since 2000, 877 infants born within the state have died before ever reaching their first birthday.

The state’s overall infant mortality rate for 2000 through 2010 was 7.0 deaths per 1,000 live births. For Native American babies, the rate is almost twice as high: 12.4 deaths per 1,000 live births.

In a critical juxtaposition, Native Americans made up 18% of all births between 2000 and 2010, but accounted for 32% of all infant deaths during the same period.

South Dakota currently has the highest Native American infant mortality rate in the nation. “Infant mortality rates are highest on reservations,” said Heather Taken Alive, a registered nurse from Rapid City. “With Todd, Shannon, Ziebach and Corson counties being the areas with the highest infant mortality rates and the poorest counties in South Dakota says quite a bit about the ‘Why?’,” she said.

All four counties lie either partially or entirely on Native American reservations.

“Alcohol and drug abuse are common afflictions in poverty-stricken homes,” Taken Alive said. “Lower self-esteem, depression, less of a desire to do more for yourself and your children are a result of all of this. And not to mention historical trauma from boarding schools and the abuse these children – our grandparents and parents – suffered while living there.”

Taken Alive is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Primary prenatal and postnatal risk factors associated with infant mortality include low birth weight, inadequate or lack of early prenatal care and tobacco use. Among other things, the study found that 30% of Native American women smoked during pregnancy as opposed to 17% of white women.

Major causes of infant death during the 11-year statistical review period include prematurity, sudden infant death syndrome, congenital anomalies and accidents.

“Fortunately, many of the factors that contribute to infant deaths in South Dakota are preventable,” said Daugaard. “Too many mothers use tobacco when pregnant, not enough mothers receive prenatal care in the first trimester and more families need to learn about the importance of safe sleep practices,” she said.

The task force developed six pertinent recommendations: improve access to early, comprehensive prenatal care; promote awareness and implementation of safe sleep practices; develop community-based systems of support for families; conduct statewide education campaigns to reduce infant mortality; develop resources for health professionals specific to infant mortality prevention; and improve data collection and analysis.

According to the report, “Infant mortality is a complex issue. The recommendations and accompanying strategies of the Task Force presented … are intended to be a starting point for action by state government, health care providers, hospitals, tribes, parents, communities and others to reduce infant mortality and improve infant health in South Dakota.”

The South Dakota Governor’s Task Force on Infant Mortality Final Report can be accessed at or at

(Contact Jesse Abernathy at

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