The infant mortality rate in the U.S. is on its way up. New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show a nearly 3% rise in the rate of infant deaths between 2021 and 2022, which is the largest year-over-year increase the agency has recorded since 2002.
The total number of infant deaths, as well as the rate at which they occur, has increased at times in the last two decades. Indeed, both rose just a year earlier, from 2020 to 2021. But, says Danielle Ely, the lead author of the CDC’s new report, that reflected a year—2021—when many more babies were being born than in the previous year—2020—which was the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The even larger rise in infant mortality in 2022 “was a bit of a surprise,” she says, given the decades-long downward trend.
The 2022 rate of 5.6 infant deaths per 1,000 live births is the highest since 2018. (2020’s rate of 5.42 was the all-time low for the country.) Though one year of notable change in the opposite direction doesn’t necessarily indicate a new continuing trend, it’s enough to spark concern for those who study infant and maternal health.
Of the 10 leading causes of death for infants in the U.S., mortality rates increased for two: bacterial sepsis, or infection, and maternal complications. One question the researchers had was whether the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed a constitutional right to abortion access, may have played a role in the latter. But because “maternal complications” encompasses a number of things that can go wrong in pregnancy, says Ely, the data aren’t granular enough to know if any specific state policies regarding womens’ health have impacted infant mortality rates. . Nevertheless, the report may prompt other investigations into these possible connections, given a recent analysis establishing a connection between state-level abortion restrictions and infant mortality.
While most individual states’ infant mortality rates didn’t change significantly, Georgia, Iowa, Missouri, and Texas all saw significantly increased rates. Nevada was the only state that saw a significant decline.
In order to keep a closer eye on potential trends in infant mortality, the CDC has also released early provisional data for the first quarter of 2023, which so far shows a still-high rate. “Our biggest hope is just that this is a blip in the data,” Ely says.