Arkansas maternal and infant mortality rates, covid vaccines among topics at Little Rock health expo

Expo topics include maternal and infant mortality, covid shots

LITTLE ROCK -- Arkansas' notoriously high rate of maternal and infant mortality and the efficacy of covid-19 vaccines were two topics that dominated the discussion Saturday among the political panelists on stage Saturday at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock.

The Health & Wellness Expo, which was presented by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and sponsored by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, hosted five panelists to speak about the health of Arkansans.

"The story has been the same year after year after year: Arkansas is ranked as one of the unhealthiest states in the nation," moderator Frank Fellone said.

Earlier this year, Arkansas ranked 47th in the nation for its health care system and had the highest rates of maternal and infant mortality in the country, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette previously reported.

"I think there's not a silver bullet to fix maternal death rates in our nation. But there are a lot of good things that we can do," Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, said.

Skip Rutherford, former dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, pointed out that communication among communities is a key factor to decreasing the rates of maternal and infant mortality.

"When you look at this maternal health issue, we see a lot of children that are ill that could have been healthy with the right health care. ... It's vital for a woman who is pregnant to have contact with a specialist or a doctor early on," he said.

While discussing the topic of maternal care, Sylvester Smith, attorney and managing partner for The Firm PLLC in North Little Rock, brought up the near total abortion ban that took effect last year in Arkansas.

"We need to provide that health care now to those moms that we've told 'You've got to have a baby.'... We've got to be mindful of all these new babies that are going to come in this world because of the policies that we put forward and we need to be prepared to pay for some of that," he said.

Amid the rollout of the new covid-19 vaccine, the conversation shifted towards the panelists' views on getting the shot.

Fellone prefaced the discussion about the vaccine by saying he has received five shots so far and he and his wife were hesitant about whether he would receive the newly approved vaccine.

Smith, Rutherford and former state Sen. Joyce Elliott all expressed they were planning on or had already gotten the updated vaccine; Bentley said she would not after "weighing out the risk and the benefits."

"I'm under 65 years old; I don't have hypertension, diabetes; I've already had covid, so I have some great natural immunities. I think the efficacy of the shots are still out there, whether they work or they don't work. ... So I've not taken a single shot, and I won't take this one," Bentley said.

Rutherford, who received his vaccine last week, spoke about the effects of long covid on Arkansans and how it still impacts the state.

"Now the governor has said covid is over, but covid is not over. We had 65,000 cases just this year. I had breakfast with a friend who was healthy until he got covid. It settled into pneumonia. It's impacted his heart. He's got long covid for the rest of his life.

"The vaccines have proven to be effective. You can talk to the specialist at any of the hospitals in Arkansas; they have proven to be effective. They save lives," Rutherford said.

Ly is a Report For America Corps member.