Tailored Community Programs Effectively Decreased Virginia’s Infant Mortality Rate. Now Sen. Tim Kaine Wants to Take the Idea Nationwide

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., joins the Senate Democratic leadership to speak to reporters about ending the 2001 authorization for use of military force enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, March 15, 2023. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

By Amie Knowles
March 30, 2023

Over a 10-year period in Virginia, from 2009 to 2019, Virginia’s infant mortality rate declined more than 18%.

More than a decade after Sen. Tim Kaine started his mission to decrease infant mortality rates in Virginia, he’s still committed to the fight. 

The senator recently introduced the Mothers and Newborns Success Act, a bipartisan bill that aims to promote maternal health and reduce racial inequities in maternal and infant mortality. The legislation is Kaine’s most recent move in a series of related efforts spanning the past 17 years.

Reducing the Rate

When Kaine became governor of Virginia in 2006, the March of Dimes recorded an infant mortality rate of 7.1 per 1,000 live births in the commonwealth. 

“Our infant mortality rate was very high—in the top 15 in the country—even though, from an income standpoint, we were a high income state,” Kaine said. 

The then-governor appointed Dr. Karen Remley (who specialized in pediatrics) as the state health commissioner and tasked her with an important goal. 

“I told her, ‘The health department has a broad mandate, but your mandate is to bring down infant mortality,’” Kaine said.

After researching the issue, Remley made a surprising discovery. She found that previous state leaders attempted to create a blanket fix for the entire state—but only about 10 communities exhibited high risk. The statistics from those specific locations raised the commonwealth’s overall number of infant deaths.

“She said, ‘You don’t need a statewide program. What you need [are] very tailored programs to each of the 10 communities,’” Kaine said.  

Death on the Decline

Virginia implemented the strategy and soon saw a decline in these deaths. By the time Kaine left office in 2010, the commonwealth’s infant mortality rate was down to 6.8 per 1,000 live births. 

According to a Washington Post article written in 2009, state officials attributed the drop to three things: 

  • A new commission on infant mortality established in 2006 
  • Programs for low-income women, which provided expanded prenatal care options, as well as more information on pregnancy and young children
  • $100,000 in funding for each of the 10 high-risk communities

In 2019, Virginia’s infant mortality rate was 5.8 per 1,000 live births. Over a 10-year period in Virginia, from 2009 to 2019, the infant mortality rate declined more than 18%.

A Continuing Effort

Nowadays, the once-targeted strategy stretches across the commonwealth—while still maintaining unique local offerings. 

“There’s volunteer opportunities in virtually every community in Virginia to work together on local strategies,” Kaine said. “And it turns out that for both infant mortality and maternal mortality, programs that are really tailored to the needs of, you know, a city or county or region are the ones that are most likely going to be effective.” 

In addition to the tailored programs, the Mothers and Newborns Success Act also aims to help women. 

The act would:

  • Strengthen support for women during and after pregnancy
  • Expand maternal health research and data collection
  • Ensure women are better matched with birthing facilities that meet their specific needs

The legislation also shines an important light on the maternal mortality rate for people of color.

“Black women are nearly three times more likely to die from a pregnancy than white women. We must take action to tackle this disparity, reduce maternal mortality, and strengthen access to care for mothers,” Kaine said in a statement. “This bill is critical to helping ensure all women and their newborns receive the support they need during and after pregnancy.”

Also, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in 2020 that the maternal mortality rate for American Indian/Alaska Native women was 1.9 times higher than the maternal mortality rate for white women.

According to recent Maternal Mortality Review Committees (MMRCs) data, more than 80% of maternal deaths are preventable. That’s why it’s important for pregnant women to have access to timely, high-quality care like the Mothers and Newborns Success Act aims to provide. 

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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