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Rate of sudden unexplained infant deaths among Black babies skyrocketed in 2020, study finds

March 13, 2023 Updated Mon., March 13, 2023 at 12:05 p.m.

New research found an increase in the rate of sudden unexplained infant deaths among Black babies in 2020.    (Dreamstime/Dreamstime/TNS)
New research found an increase in the rate of sudden unexplained infant deaths among Black babies in 2020.   (Dreamstime/Dreamstime/TNS)
Joseph Wilkinson, New York Daily News

While the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the U.S. in 2020, the nationwide rate of sudden unexplained infant deaths remained steady — except among Black babies, according to a study released Monday.

The sudden unexplained infant death (SUID) rates among white, Asian, American Indian and Hispanic babies all remained relatively steady or declined from 2019 to 2020, the study found. However, the rate increased substantially among Black babies.

“The significant increased rate of SUID among non-Hispanic Black infants from 2019 to 2020, but not among other single race and Hispanic infants, deserves further attention because it could be attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on social determinants of health,” the study’s authors wrote.

The study attempted a holistic examination of sudden infant deaths in the U.S. from 2015 through 2020, focusing not just on sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), but also deaths attributed to unknown causes, as well as accidental suffocation or strangulation in bed.

SUID rates within racial groups had remained relatively constant for decades before the sharp increase in Black infant death rate in 2020.

“We would typically — ideally — look at five years of data in order to see any sort of trend emerging. So, these are very preliminary findings,” one of the study’s authors, Sharyn Parks Brown, told CNN. “But this is something that we’re going to have to continue monitoring.”

Researchers also focused on changes in reporting of infant deaths between 2019 and 2020. Though the SIDS rate increased by 20% between 2019 and 2020, the overall SUID rate did not change significantly.

Medical experts say that discrepancy is likely because SIDS is not well understood, leaving medical examiners to make their own judgments when an infant dies suddenly.

“The root causes of, and distinction between, SIDS and an unknown cause of death are poorly defined,” Cheryl L. Clark, associate director of epidemiology, evaluation and metrics at the Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs, told CNN. She was not involved in the new study.

Similarly, the study authors said the SIDS increase from 2019 to 2020 “was likely attributed to diagnostic shifting” and not COVID-19.

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