The Maternal and Child Health Bureau in Washington, D.C., has awarded a five-year contract to Utah State University to improve the health and development of Navajo children.

The contract begins with $300,000 a year and is expected to increase as other agencies serving the Navajo Nation become involved in the long-term project, said Dr. Richard Roberts, director of the project and co-director of the Early Intervention Research Institute at USU."A bewildering array of bureaucratic systems serve Navajo families with young children," Roberts said. "One of our tasks in this project is to coordinate all of those efforts. This is a demonstration project to determine how states, tribes, the federal government and Navajo Nation can work together.

"Though groups have cooperated in individual efforts in the past, this is the first time everyone has come together to solve problems of Navajo families with disabled or at-risk children below the age of 3," Roberts stated.

Because Navajo families are spread across sparsely populated regions of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico and multiple agencies are responsible for services, information on health of pregnant women and children 0-5 years of age is sketchy, Roberts explained.

Differences between Navajo and Western views of disabilities add to the problem of collecting accurate data, he said.

The Indian Health Service annual report estimates a 50 percent increase in infant mortality on the reservation from 1988 to 1989.

"Preliminary analyses of these deaths suggest that many are preventable through education with parents and extended family caretakers," Roberts asserted.

Three- to 5-year-old children attending reservation Head Start programs scored much higher than mainstream American children (7.6 percent vs. 2-3 percent) for significant developmental delays. The survey estimates that another 32 percent were at risk of developmental delays because of low birth weight, bacterial meningitis, fetal alcohol syndrome, severe trauma, etc.

A priority of the USU project is to streamline the tracking of at-risk newborns through three states and countless agencies, Roberts continued.