Mississippi babies are likelier to die before their first birthday than infants anywhere else in the country, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday.

The state had an infant mortality rate of 8.12 per 1,000 live births, well above the national average of 5.42 in 2020, the most recent year for which the national data is available. Louisiana, second from the bottom, saw 7.59 deaths for every 1,000 live births. 

Mississippi has had the country’s highest infant mortality rate for years. In 2019, the state topped the list with a rate of 8.71.

Black babies are twice as likely to die as their white counterparts in Mississippi. In 2020, the infant mortality rate among white infants was 5.7, compared to 11.8 among Black infants, according to health department figures. In 2019, 322 babies died before their first birthday in the state. Nearly 60%, or 185, were Black, though Black infants accounted for just 43% of births. 

Nationally, the leading cause of infant mortality is birth defects. But in Mississippi, premature birth and pregnancy or delivery complications as well as sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) are the leading causes. Mississippi has the country’s highest rate of premature birth, which is linked to chronic conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes among mothers. 

The infant mortality rate is one of the many health indicators in which Mississippi “is not just 50th” but “50th by a mile,” as state health officer Dr. Daniel Edney put it during the first hearing held by the Senate Study Group on Women, Children and Families on Tuesday. 

The group, which was created by Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, heard speaker after speaker indicate that the state is not prepared for the additional high-risk pregnancies that will occur in the wake of Mississippi’s abortion ban.

The health department estimates the state will see an additional 5,000 births every year. 

The Senate commission hearing, chaired by Sen. Nicole Boyd, R-Oxford, made clear that extending postpartum Medicaid coverage from 60 days to 12 months will be a priority for the Senate in the next session. But the legislation likely faces an uphill battle in the House, where Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, killed the measure last year, claiming it would expand Medicaid– though it would not make more people eligible for the program. 

And while experts say extending Medicaid coverage after birth would help reduce maternal mortality and improve infant health as well, it would not help ensure women are healthy when they become pregnant. The Senate commission heard data indicating that one in six women of childbearing age are uninsured, making it hard for them to get care to manage conditions like hypertension that increase the risk of poor birth outcomes. 

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Isabelle, an Atlanta native, covers health as part of Mississippi Today’s community health team. Prior to joining Mississippi Today, she was a reporter for the Biloxi Sun Herald and a Report for America corps member.