America in Decline: A Baby Born in Parts of Ohio More Likely to Die Than One Born in North Korea or the Gaza Strip

The following article first appeared in Pacific Standard Magazine. 


Infant mortality within a three-mile radius around one of the nation’s best children’s hospitals, in Cleveland, Ohio, is worse than that in some third-world countries, Dr. Michele Walsh, neonatology director of Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, claimed in a radio interview last week. The hospital anchors the relatively affluent University Circle neighborhood, home to Case Western Reserve University, on the east end of an otherwise pretty impoverished city. (Seventy percent of the infants that enter Walsh’s intensive care unit are on Medicaid.)

Infant mortality rates higher than those of countries like Japan or Sweden are one thing—several reports in recent years found the United States to have a slightly higher rate than many such peers—but Uzbekistan? The Gaza Strip? That would mean communities around the hospital far outstrip the national rate of 6.7 deaths per 1,000 live births. Understandably disturbed by the claim, Politifact Ohio confirmed it using a Case Western regional social and economic research database:

Infant mortality in the University Circle neighborhood … was slightly above 69 deaths per 1,000 live births. That exceeds the rate in countries that include, among others, Bangladesh, Haiti, Burma, Cameroon, Djibouti, Sudan, Kenya, Nepal, Pakistan, Rwanda, and Uganda.

The 69 deaths per 1,000 live births statistic is from 2009 only; taking a three-year average still yields 18.6 deaths, higher than many Caribbean and Eastern European countries. But here’s the real gut-punch: Looking within University Circle communities like Hough and Mount Pleasant, PolitiFact found “infant mortality rates above 27 per 1,000—worse than in North Korea, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Samoa, Maldives, or the Gaza Strip.”

Based on these findings, Politifact rated Walsh’s statement as true.

It would be easy to chalk this up to intractable inequalities we’ve been living with for a long time. But it’s hard to not perceive communities like Hough and Mount Pleasant as canaries in a bigger coal mine for a society that has screwed its youth since the ’80s, when young Americans’ health, measured by everything from infant mortality to drug addiction to disease rates, started systematically deteriorating relative to peer nations.

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