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Open Access Research article

Racial disparities in infant mortality: what has birth weight got to do with it and how large is it?

Timothy B Gage12*, Fu Fang1, Erin K O'Neill1 and A Gregory DiRienzo2

  • * Corresponding author: Timothy B Gage tbg97@albany.edu

  • † Equal contributors

Author affiliations

1 Department of Anthropology, University at Albany, State University of New York, 1400 Washington Ave., Albany, NY 12222, USA

2 Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, University at Albany, State University of New York, 1400 Washington Ave., Albany, NY 12222, USA

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Citation and License

BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth 2010, 10:86  doi:10.1186/1471-2393-10-86

Published: 28 December 2010

Abstract

Background

It has been hypothesized that birth weight is not on the causal pathway to infant mortality, at least among "normal" births (i.e. those located in the central part of the birth weight distribution), and that US racial disparities (African American versus European American) may be underestimated. Here these hypotheses are tested by examining the role of birth weight on racial disparities in infant mortality.

Methods

A two-component Covariate Density Defined mixture of logistic regressions model is used to decompose racial disparities, 1) into disparities due to "normal" versus "compromised" components of the birth cohort, and 2) further decompose these components into indirect effects, which are associated with birth weight, versus direct effects, which are independent of birth weight.

Results

The results indicate that a direct effect is responsible for the racial disparity in mortality among "normal" births. No indirect effect of birth weight is observed despite significant disparities in birth weight. Among "compromised" births, an indirect effect is responsible for the disparity, which is consistent with disparities in birth weight. However, there is also a direct effect among "compromised" births that reduces the racial disparity in mortality. This direct effect is responsible for the "pediatric paradox" and maybe due to differential fetal loss. Model-based adjustment for this effect indicates that racial disparities corrected for fetal loss could be as high as 3 or 4 fold. This estimate is higher than the observed racial disparities in infant mortality (2.1 for both sexes).

Conclusions

The results support the hypothesis that birth weight is not on the causal pathway to infant mortality among "normal" births, although birth weight could play a role among "compromised" births. The overall size of the US racial disparities in infant mortality maybe considerably underestimated in the observed data possibly due to racial disparities in fetal loss.