The city's unusually high death rate for infants less than a year old is at a critical stage for the black community, according to a Washington physician.
Dr. Karl E. Hammonds, executive director of D.C. Operation PUSH, who spoke at a community PUSH forum last week, said general living conditions of blacks in the city are related to the high infant mortality rate.
Hammonds cited "deteriorating" education, growing drug abuse, unemployment and racial problems in the District as factors in infant deaths.
He stressed that these problems are preventable and, to a large degree, avoidable if young people receive help and direction from adults.
Children "cannot raise themselves," Hammonds said. "If we're slipping and sliding, they're going to pick up this inconsistency."
In an interview after the meeting at the Shiloh Baptist Church in Northwest Washington, Hammonds said, "The issue of infant mortality is crucial to the survival of our people. We can't ignore it."
The District's infant death rate is reported to be higher than that of any comparable city in the country. In 1977, 270 infants died before their first birthday, according to the D.C. Department of Human Resources. The black infant mortality rate was 29.5 per 1,000 live briths, while the death rate for white infants was 13.9 per 1,000 live births, DHR data shows.
Washington's rate of infant mortality is considered unnecessarily high in view of the District's resources, Hammonds said.
"We have enough (medical) facilities here for a city several times larger than Washington," he said. "But bad living conditions breed bad health."
Washington has a large group of young, poor mothers who face problems of "poor nutrition, drugs, infections and a confusing health system," Hammonds said.
In addition, District residents apparently do not take full advantage of the health facilities available. Many encounter what Hammonds called a "communications barrier" with medical authorities who may be rude or intimidating.
The city's health care bureaucracy is so big and confusing that "I get boggled myself figuring out where to go," the doctor said.
Earlier this year, Mayor Marion S. Barry appointed a committee to study the problem of infant mortality. On June 29, the committee submitted a progress report, which includes recommendations about data collection, health care and other aspects of the infant mortality issue. The committee is awaiting a response from the mayor, who recently returned from a trip to Africa.
The next committee meeting, which will be open to the public for one hour, is scheduled for Aug. 30 in the District Building.
In response to the problem of infant mortality and other health concerns, PUSH has taken steps to make health information available to the community.
One program, which is jointly operated by PUSH and the Howard University College of Medicine, is the Health Education Learning Project. The program provides health education for youths, and it prepares young people for medical careers.
In addition, PUSH broadcasts "Focus on Your Health," a 30-minute radio program, every Sunday morning, and presents a health column in the Capital Spotlight newspaper, a weekly black publication.