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US tries to find ways to stem increase in infant mortality

Concern in the new Congress is beginning to focus on ways to stem a reported rise in infant mortality in several areas of the United States. Legislation is about to be introduced to prevent further cuts in federal feeding programs affecting mothers and infants nationwide, just as a troubling study is released.

The US infant mortality rate - the number of children out of every 1,000 born who do not survive their first year - has been declining for two decades. Currently it stands at 11.7. But a survey by the Food Research and Action Council (FRAC) released Monday indicates that in 1981 the infant mortality rate rose in Alabama, Alaska, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. In addition, 34 local areas showed increases, including Saginaw and Lansing, Mich. Infant mortality rose from 9.1 to 13.1 in Lansing and from 17.5 to 24.0 in Saginaw. A second report using 1982 figures will be issued in a few months when statistics are available.

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FRAC director Nancy Amidei attributes the rise to ''deteriorating economic conditions and lack of adequate nutrition and health services'' in areas hit hard by the recession.

US Reps. Leon E. Panetta (D) of California, James M. Jeffords (R) of Vermont, and three other representatives are cosponsoring a House resolution, scheduled to be introduced Thursday. The measure calls for no cuts in the federal nutrition programs in the fiscal 1984 budget, seeks to maintain federal responsibility for the programs, and asks that WIC (pregnant women, infant, and children's feeding program) funds be maintained at full authorization. Mr. Panetta is incoming chairman of the House agriculture subcommittee that oversees feeding programs.

Private agencies like the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the citizens lobbying group Bread for the World are also responding with possible aids toward solving the problem.

The Children's Defense Fund is working with members of Congress and other organizations on the ''Children's Survival Bill,'' a package of improvements in existing health care and nutrition systems. Dan Yohalen, program director of CDF says the agency is also at work on a major proposal for reforming health services.

The FRAC survey indicates that white infant mortality is unexpectedly on the rise in two cities deeply affected by steel layoffs - Baltimore and Pittsburgh - while black infant mortality is increasing in Houston, where overall rates fell. Ms. Amidei says that in areas where workers have exhausted their jobless benefits, there is a new group of infants and pregnant mothers in suburban families ''not plugged into the system,'' which includes access to WIC, medicaid , and public clinics, and knowledge of how to get help. Low birth weight babies with poor nutrition are believed to be among the high risk group for infant mortality.

Jim Bell, executive director of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, says his group has set up programs to help get information and nutritional aid to families of ''high risk'' infants and to mobilize community resources for helping them: aid with food stamps, visiting nurses, and financial assistance.

Organizations like Bread for the World are working with Congress for higher allocations on the WIC program, where at present 9 million are eligible, but only 2.25 million are served. Lorette Hanson, issues analyst for Bread for the World and a member of the steering committee of the Children's Nutrition Forum, says CNF will shortly be releasing a report titled ''Doing More With Less'' on the school lunch program. She also points to a resolution passed in the last Congress establishing the House Select Committee on Family, Children, Youth, which will be studying these issues.

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The areas cited by FRAC for an infant mortality rate rise from 1980 to 1981 include: rural Graham County, Ariz., from 15.6 to 27.5 and Gardsen County, Fla., from 16.5 to 26.5; Detroit, from 21.0 to 21.9, (with a 33 percent incidence, equal to that of Honduras, in Detroit's census area A); Buffalo, N.Y., from 15.1 to 16.5; Youngstown, Ohio, from 13.7 to 14.9; Tulsa, Okla., from 10.8 to 12.2; Roanoke, Va. from 11.9 to 15.0.

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