Nine days after his inauguration as mayor, Marion Barry called the District of Columbia's infant mortality rate its "number one health problem" and ordered the health department to prepare a plan for reducing the highest infant death rate of any city in the nation.
Yesterday, flanked by the director of the Department of Human Resources, chief of public health and the head of the "blue ribbon commission" he appointed to review the infant mortality plan, Barry unveiled the first fruits of the city's labors: a brochure promoting good pre- and postnatal care, and a special phone number (723-BABY) to call for information about pregnancy and child care.
The brochure-entitled "Keep Your Baby Alive and Healthy"-lists the city's public health clinics providing maternal and child care services, lists hospitals providing obstetric and pediatric care, discusses signs of pregnancies and symptoms to report to a physician and includes some basic birth control information.
The release of the brochure and establishment of the telephone number are part of a multimedia awareness campaign scheduled to run from Mother's Day this Sunday until Father's Day, June 17.
In the meantime, however, some members of the blue ribbon commission named by Barry say privately they are bogged down by a lock of clerical help, a lack of direction, interhospital rivalries and a lack of data.
In 1977, 27.3 of every thousand babies born to District residents died before their first birthday. The 1978 figures, although promised by Barry last January, have yet to be released by his administration.
About a month ago, the 10-member blue ribbon commission voted to ask Barry for an executive order authorizing commission representatives to go into the city's private hospitals to better collect information on where infants died and of what causes.
The commission also wanted to see the hospitals' provisions for resuscitating sick netborns. Breathing difficulties are listed after prematurity as the number two cause of death.
The request went to the heart of the commission's most difficult problem: how to discover the problem hospitals without alienating them.
Barry, however, did not respond to the request. Asked about it yesterday at his press conference, the mayor said, "I'm not familiar with that."
Commission members said the request was relayed to the mayor, and commission chairman Frederick Green said yesterday he spoke to the mayor about it after the press conference Green said later Barry may not have realized the urgent need for the order.
Responding to Barry's orders, DHR officials hurriedly prepared a massive plan for dealing with the infant mortality problem. The DHR document stresses the need for improved nutrition of pregnant women and a massive publicity campaign, such as that now being launched.
Commission members have privately been quite critical of the plan, saying that it is based on long held assumptions, rather than scientifically validated facts. They have accomplished little thus faf, however, in their attempts to revise improve it.
The hospital rivalries-the commission includes department chairmen from Georgetown George Washington and Howard University hospitals and calls on experts from other institutions-surfaced at Thursday night's meeting, when the group was discussing the inter-hospital transfer of sick newborns.
The debate quickly bogged down in a tight-lipped discussion over which hospitals were or weren't suited to receive sick infants, and who should control any transport service.
As has been the case with most issues addressed by the commission, the matter of establishing a transport system was not settled at the meeting. And even if it had been settled, the commission has no money to establish such a system.
Green said yesterday he plans to hold an executive session of the commission as soon as possible to refocus its efforts and find a way for it to move forward, a step at a time, addressing the various parts of the DHR plan.
Asked yesterday about the slower-than-promised pace of his administration on the infant mortality question, Barry said, "I think we should be commended, quite frankly, for having moved this far, this fast. . . ." CAPTION: Picture, MARION BARRY . . . launches awareness campaign