Skip to main content

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome gets the Attention of Congress

It is no secret that American Indians and Alaskan Natives continue to
suffer from disparities in health care in the United States. Native
Americans still do not receive a level of service comparable to other
Americans and these disparities are now impacting Native Americans at
younger ages. For instance, diabetes has escalated to epidemic proportions
in Native American communities. While the Indian health system tries to
address this issue, the rate of diabetes continues to rise with diagnoses
coming at progressively younger ages.

Even more alarming, is the rate at which Native American infants fall
victim to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or what is more commonly knows as
SIDS. SIDS is the unexplainable death of a child under the age of one.
Almost all cases of sudden infant death syndrome occur during sleep,
without any apparent suffering. No cause of death can be found and there
are no noticeable symptoms.

Every day in the United States, eight babies fall victim to SIDS. Sadly,
Native Americans have the highest rate of SIDS death in the nation. In
2000, the nationwide SIDS rate for infants of American Indian mothers was
2.6 times that of non-Hispanic white mothers. This is a tragic health
disparity that I strongly believe can be prevented through risk reduction

A recent study done by the Aberdeen Area Indian Health Service identified
risk factors associated with SIDS. Several conclusions from the study
suggest ways to reduce the incidence of SIDS among American Indian
populations. The study noted the following behaviors increase the risk of
SIDS: alcohol consumption by women of childbearing age, especially during
pregnancy; maternal and environmental tobacco exposure during pregnancy;
and pregnancy by women under the age of 20.

These are risk factors that can be avoided with proper education. While the
cause of SIDS remains unknown at this time, risk reduction education has
been found to reduce the occurrence of SIDS by nearly 50 percent. That is
why I was heartened when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
(HHS) announced a $100,000 grant through the Office of Minority Health to
support a public-private partnership to reduce the abnormally-high rate of
SIDS among American Indians. The grant was then matched dollar-for-dollar
by the CJ Foundation; the leading private organization working to reduce
SIDS rates in the United States.

Initial efforts focused on support activities in three high-incidence
American Indian communities to reduce alcohol use by pregnant women, reduce
exposure to maternal and secondhand smoke, and increase awareness of SIDS
among pregnant and teenage mothers. Culturally appropriate educational
materials were developed to teach mothers and other caregivers the measures
they can take to reduce the risk of SIDS. Initial results from these
demonstration projects were very encouraging, and educational materials are
now being distributed as widely as possible within other American Indian

As a result of the success experienced by this program, I initiated a
formal request with more than 20 of my House colleagues that the program be
awarded additional federal funds so we can continue to reduce SIDS rates
and provide increased risk reduction education to Native Americans and
other high incidence populations. Thanks to our efforts, Congress
appropriated $1 million to HHS to achieve this goal. With these funds, the
Office of Minority Health within the Department now has the opportunity to
expand its program and reach more American Indian families.

The high incidence of SIDS in Native American communities is just one of
the many health-related problems facing American Indians and Alaskan
Natives today, but this situation can be rectified now that we have a way
to provide the resources to educate communities and reduce the number of
Native American families forced to suffer the tragedy of SIDS.