EAST CHICAGO | The odds of an infant dying before she blows out the candles on her first birthday cake are higher in Indiana than in almost any other state in the nation.
Out of every 1,000 live births, 7.7 Hoosier children will die within the first year, according to provisional data from 2011. Lowering the rate is one of the Indiana State Department of Health's top three initiatives.
"We said, 'We can't keep this hidden anymore,'" said State Health Commissioner Dr. William C. VanNess II. "Indiana is horrible at infant mortality. Horrible. We are 47th out of 50 states."
VanNess met Tuesday with local health care workers and legislators, hoping to spark discussion on ways to improve Indiana's infant mortality rate.
The issue has not gone unnoticed, but previous efforts have not yielded the type of results the state wants.
"(By) 2020, I want to be the best in the nation," VanNess said.
A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows Indiana ranked sixth nationally in 2010 for infant mortality.
Local figures, based off provisional data, show 52 of the 6,182 babies born in Lake County in 2011 died. Of the 1,756 babies born in neighboring Porter County in 2011, fewer than five died, according to the Indiana State Department of Health.
The reasons are tough to pinpoint.
"There are a lot of factors that figure in to infant mortality," VanNess said.
Indiana has high rates of obesity and smoking, both of which tie into infant mortality. The state ranks 41st nationally in overall health, he said.
Data from 2010 shows 17.1 percent of pregnant Indiana women smoked during pregnancy, compared with 9.2 percent nationally.
In Lake County, 12.7 percent of pregnant women smoked during pregnancy, and 16 percent of Porter County women smoked during pregnancy in 2010, according to the Indiana State Department of Health.
State Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, said it is important for information to reach the people.
"It's all about education and educating people," he said.
Offering support and using social workers to spread information and resources has been successful in other health matters.
"Maybe that's part of the answer," VanNess said.
Funding cuts complicate the issue, forcing the health department to do more with less. Two-thirds of its budget comes from federal dollars, he said.
Brown said a challenge with getting legislators involved is helping people overcome the hurdle of thinking there's already too much government involvement in their lives.
VanNess suggested the state could work more closely with physicians, pulling data that may provide a bigger picture to the issue.
The health department relies heavily on information from birth and death certificates, he said.