LONG BEACH — While nationwide figures show mixed success in stemming infant deaths, the rate of infant mortality in Long Beach declined sharply in 1984 and continued downward in Los Angeles County, according to newly released statistics.
In Long Beach, the rate of death among children less than a year old dropped from 12.8 for each 1,000 live births in 1983 to 9.7 in 1984, the county Health Department reported.
The reduction meant that 20 fewer Long Beach babies died in 1984 than the previous year, when there were 91 infant deaths. The most dramatic drop was among blacks, where deaths were cut from 28 to 17, while the number of births remained about the same.
Long Beach's overall rate was slightly better than that of the county, where it dropped from 10.3 deaths per 1,000 births in 1983 to 9.8 in 1984. The county had 1,415 infant deaths out of 144,071 live births last year.
The local and county statistics compare favorably with the most recent national figures--those for 1983--which show that a dramatic 20-year decline in infant mortality has tapered off.
The national rate of 11.5 in 1982 dipped to 10.9 in 1983. That overall rate included a sharp drop in deaths of babies less than a month old, but the death rate among infants aged 1 month to 1 year increased by 5.6%. No similar recent trend was evident in Los Angeles County, said Billie Weiss, who helps prepare the Health Department's annual Vital Statistics Report.
Newborn children fared well in Long Beach and Los Angeles County because a solid program for care of low-income expectant mothers and newborn children remains in place despite federal spending cuts, said area health professionals.
"Almost all low-income pregnant women in Los Angeles County do have access to services they may not have in other areas," said Eloise Jenks, director of the nonprofit Public Health Foundation's largest program for the care of Women, Infants and Children (WIC) in the county.
The WIC nutrition program for mothers and newborns, which is one of the few programs health programs to have withstood proposed Reagan Administration budget cuts, is available nationwide. Therefore, its presence in this area probably would not account for a difference in national and regional trends, Jenks said.
But other local factors that contribute to good prenatal care are the ready availability of county health centers, plus assistance from Medi-Cal, which offers financial support unavailable in some other states, she said.
"People can get very inexpensive prenatal care here," said Jenks. A $20-a-visit fee is requested at the county clinics, but she said that is still cheap compared with most parts of the country.
Dr. Rugmini Shah, city health officer in Long Beach, said a 25% cutback this year in prenatal funding from the state--money the state receives from the federal government--has not reduced the quality of the city-offered program.
In fact, several city-run outpatient clinics established during the last two years have reduced the average time a pregnant woman must wait for her first checkup from two months to two weeks, Shah said. The city assisted about 700 of Long Beach's 7,322 new mothers last year, she said.
The other 90% of the mothers were patients of private physicians and health programs, with low-income women receiving services not only at county clinics, but at several private ones that charge as little as the county, Shah said.
For example, the United Health Plan Medical Center charges just $15 a visit, while Memorial Medical Center provides checkups for the indigent on a sliding-fee scale, Shah said. Many local doctors are also now competing to provide prenatal care for Medi-Cal patients, she said.
And, under a new county program, some low-income expectant mothers will be able to deliver their babies at two local private hospitals, Pacific and St. Mary, because of overcrowding at the nearest county medical center in Torrance, she said.
Still, public health money is tight, and the city has had to begin to more carefully focus its resources.
"During the next few months we're going to have to reach more people in the (black) community," Shah said, "and encourage them to apply earlier (in pregnancy)."
High Rate for Blacks
Though the infant mortality rate among Long Beach blacks dropped to a five-year low in 1984, a recent study of county statistics by the League of United Latin American Citizens' Head Start program here found that black babies died at a rate almost double the city average from 1980-83. The mortality rate for blacks was 20.04 for each 1,000 births during the period, while the rate for whites was 11.87, Latinos 9.48, and Asians 6.33.