YESTERDAY we made reference in an editorial to the fact that, historically, the city's infant mortality rate has gone down a great deal. But in the contemporary context, efforts at further improvement have not been so successful, as some letters published today note. Mayor Barry announced last week that "bureaucratic inertia" had wasted months of effort to curb the rate here. Sttistics have indicated that the infant death rate climbed from 22.2 for every 1,000 live births in 1979 to 24.6 in 1980 -- a 10 percent increase. That rise occurred despite a 14-month study by a blue-ribbon panel and $5.5 million in federal aid, both of which were intended to lower the rate, which is almost three times the national average.
So what does the mayor do now? He appoints a second blue-ribbon panel to study the problem.
Another panel is not needed. What is required is some efficient procedure for getting information to the poor, uneducated, often teen-age mothers who fail to care for themselves during pregnancy. This work has to be done in the schools, at the neighborhood shopping centers and at doctors' offices. The original blue-ribbon panel said that city health clinics needed to keep better records on visits by pregnant women and that there should be more home visits to expectant mothers by public health nurses. After the children are born, the panel said in its final report in June 1980, the city's health workers should make sure that those born at a low weight or showing other signs of potential health problems have special medical and nutritional attention from the city for at least a year.
The difficulty in putting the task force's recommendations into effect has been that the city's Department of Human Services has not had a person in charge of maternity and child health in recent months or even a permanent head of its health services division. As a result, infant mortality, which the mayor has labeled the city's "No. 1 health problem," has not had the undivided attention of any group other than that blue-ribbon panel. The panel may have the best ideas about how to reduce infant mortality, but without someone to roll up his sleeves and do the actual work, the panel is only a showpiece.
The explanation that the city does not have the money to pay for many of the procedures that could reduce the infant mortality rate is valid. This is not to say that nothing can be done. The city does have money expressly intended to help with the problem -- such as the $5.5 million from the federal government -- and the city does have social workers and nurses. But the money and staff need to be used better. Figuring out how to do that is a job for a good administrator, and the city needs to make the commitment of assigning a good administrator to that job. A 10 percent increase in the infant mortality rate in one year on top of an already poor record is not something you merely shove off for more study by another blue-ribbon panel.