Pacific Islander moms in Utah have made strides in delivering healthy babies, as the infant mortality rates decreased by almost half.

SALT LAKE CITY — Pacific Islander moms in Utah have made strides in delivering healthy babies, as the infant mortality rates have fallen in the past five years by almost half.

Nearly 48 percent more babies are living, according to the Utah Department of Health's Office of Health Disparities.

"Very few of the mothers were getting early prenatal care, many do not take folic acid, and there were very high obesity rates among that population," said April Young Bennett, health department program specialist.

Bennett said many mothers, too, did not have adequate access to health care.

The department partnered with the National Tongan-American Society and the Queen Center to address healthier lifestyles among the population of Pacific Islanders in Utah, getting them involved in their own health. Weight loss contests and other events helped to spread the word about better maternal and prenatal health.

The infant mortality rate among Utah's Pacific Islanders fell from 7.4 per 1,000 births between 2004 and 2007, to 3.6 per 1,000 from 2008 to 2011, the health department announced Wednesday.

"This was an amazing improvement, and we're very impressed with the results," Bennett said.

Statewide, the general population infant mortality rate is 5 per 1,000 births.

Local efforts to curb the initially disturbing infant death rates among local Pacific Islanders included the first-ever statewide surveillance study of Pacific Islanders in the country, in which about 600 in Utah were asked questions about their health habits.

In addition to infant death rates, the study found that obesity and gestational diabetes rates are also high among Pacific Islanders in Utah, at more than double the state average.

Utah Pacific Islanders, however, have low death rates from heart disease and stroke, as well as a low smoking rate, according to the 2009 report from the health department. Most are of Tongan or Samoan ancestry.

The American Community Survey estimates that people of full or part Pacific Islander race made up 1.2 percent of the Utah population in 2011, about 37,000.

Health promotion videos in English, Samoan and Tongan, as well as culturally appropriate health promotion and health care referral programs, were also developed by and for the populations to help curb the high rates of infant mortality and other health problems.

Outreach was made possible by a three-year state partnership grant from the federal Office of Minority Health.

Utah is one of 22 states to receive yet another similar grant, of $130,000 for two years, to continue the beneficial programs. Of the 46 states funded during the earlier grant cycle, 24 were not funded this time, and of the 22 that did receive funding, about half received less. Utah, however, received the full amount.

"Since the drop in infant mortality rates is so new, we don't want to start ignoring the population and lose the progress we've made," Bennett said.

The Office of Health Disparities will try to maintain the recent improvement in Pacific Islander infant health and replicate the success in Utah's African-American community, which has had the second-highest infant mortality rate in the state.

The infant mortality rate for Utah's African-American community also fell — from 8.4 per 1,000 births in 2004 to 2007, to 7.6 per 1,000 in 2008 to 2011 — due to similar interventions, although not as significantly as in the Pacific Islander community.

Other efforts funded by the grant include identifying underserved community members at risk for chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension, linking them to appropriate health care providers.

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