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SCHERERVILLE — Indiana's health commissioner is enlisting the Region in her quest to save the lives of more Hoosier infants.

"We need to be site-specific, and community-specific, about what is killing your babies," Dr. Kristina Box told a crowd of doctors, business owners and social service providers Wednesday at the Patrician Banquet Center.

Indiana has the seventh-highest infant death rate in the nation, according to the latest federal data. In 2017, more than 600 children died in the state before their first birthdays.

"Infant mortality is a window into the health of the state or the nation," said Box, who spoke at Mental Health America of Northwest Indiana's Legacy Breakfast.

That Hammond-based nonprofit offers programs to help women get prenatal care, quit smoking and deal with parenting stress, among others.

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And Indiana struggles with many health measures that contribute to the deaths of the babies, such as obesity and smoking, Box said.

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The Region has a particularly serious infant mortality problem.

From 2013 from 2017, the three ZIP codes with the highest infant death rates in Indiana were all in Lake County: 46404 (Gary, 20.1 infant deaths per 1,000 live births); 46312 (East Chicago, 15.8); and 46324 (Hammond, 15.6).

The northwest region also has a higher-than-average rate of infant deaths caused by perinatal risks, which are correlated with the health of the mothers, Box said.

"Healthy moms make healthy babies," she said.

Box said women need clean air and water, a way to get to their medical appointments and access to healthy food.

"It's really hard to get a woman engaged in prenatal care in the first trimester — to get her to do what I need as a health care provider — when she's worried about how she's going to put food on the table for her children, or how she's going to keep her lights on," said Box, who is an OB-GYN specialist.

Kids also have to sleep alone, on their backs, in cribs, as many infant deaths are caused by unsafe sleeping environments, Box said.

Box said the state is trying to save more babies by passing a law that will provide OB navigators to at-risk pregnant women and require that health care providers ask all expectant mothers if they use drugs.

And she said it's up to everyone in Indiana — faith-based groups, community organizations, first responders — to help protect the lives of its most vulnerable residents. One example of that is the Direct On-Scene Education, or DOSE program, where firefighters provide free cribs and safe-sleep education while they're out on calls.

"My goal is to have more first birthday celebrations in the state of Indiana, and many more birthdays beyond that," Box said. 

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Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.