TRENTON — Year after year, nearly 500 infants in New Jersey die within their first 12 months of life.

That statistic alone is troubling enough, but health experts and state lawmakers are taking a closer look at a problem within the problem — a racial disparity at the expense of black babies.

"Black infants make up 14 percent of our births in New Jersey. They make up double that in these infant mortality events — 28 percent," Dr. Barbara Ostfeld, director of the SIDS Center of New Jersey and a Robert Wood Johnson Medical School professor, told a Senate panel on Feb. 5.

While the state boasts one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the nation, Ostfeld said, New Jersey ranks among the worst states for the disparity between black and white infant deaths.

And poverty is a driving factor.

Using Atlantic City as an example, where median income is one-third of the rest of the state, Ostfeld said the infant mortality rate among black mothers is 29 per 1,000 live births. Statewide, it's 4.6 per 1,000.

"That's a dramatic increase," she said.

Smita Nadia Hussain, maternal justice campaign director for MomsRising, said a similar disparity exists for mothers of color. Black women make up less than 13 percent of our state's population, she said, but they make up almost half of maternal deaths.

"The plain truth is we cannot seriously address our maternal mortality problem without addressing and reducing racial disparities," she said. "We must ensure equitable health care access for women before, during and after pregnancy."

The Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee, chaired by Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), spent two hours hearing from medical experts and advocates on the topics of infant and maternal mortality.

Vitale started the hearing noting that New Jersey ranks 47th out of the 50 states for total maternal mortality — the death rate of mothers during or within a year following pregnancy — at 37.3 deaths per 100,000 live births.

"As a committee and as a state we have our work cut out for us to reduce that number," Vitale said.

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.