With Wisconsin ranking as the state with the highest rate of black infant mortality in the country, the Wisconsin Partnership Program announced last week it plans to commit up to $10 million over the next five years to reverse this trend.

“It’s a tragedy because these deaths are preventable,” Phil Farrell, University of Wisconsin professor and co-chair of the project’s steering committee, said in a university statement. “We know the key will lie in improving health measures for African American women across their life spans, and in better prenatal care. Mother and child health are inextricably linked. This effort is designed to improve the health of generations to come.”

From 2004-06, the infant mortality rate for black children in Wisconsin was 17.2 per 1000 births. This is nearly three times the total state average of 6.3, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services.

“This is a public health emergency,” Farrell said in the statement. “There were more African-American infant deaths in Milwaukee in some years than there were people killed by homicide. And yet the scope of this tragedy is not in the forefront of public attention.”

The initiative will focus on the Southeast region of the state, where 92 percent of black infant deaths occur statewide.

It will concentrate specifically on Racine, Beloit, Kenosha and Milwaukee, which have the worst infant mortality rates in the state respectively according to data collected between 2002 and 2006.

Racine led with a rate of 23 mortalities per 1000 births, which can be compared to 6.9 for white, non-Hispanic infants.

The rate in Madison is 7.15 mortalities per 1000 births.

Sen. Kelda Helen Roys, D-Madison, said the committee’s decision is an important acknowledgment of a public health crisis exacerbated by inadequate health care.

“Infant mortality is a complex problem that has many roots and many solutions,” Helen Roys said. “One of the things we could really do is try to increase access to health services that help women plan their pregnancies. We need better prenatal healthcare.”

Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, attributed infant mortality for all races and ethnicities to pregnancies out of wedlock.

“I never like it when they talk about race being a factor,” Grothman said. “I know it’s old-fashioned, but we’ve got to do a better job of sending the message that you should get married before you get pregnant.”

The Oversight and Advisory Committee of the UW School of Medicine and Public Health governs the Wisconsin Partnership Program.

The program’s funding comes from an endowment created when Blue Cross and Blue Shield United of Wisconsin converted to a for-profit entity.

It was announced in January current grants included in the endowment will be cut by 15 and 20 percent after the endowment’s value shrunk from $358 million in 2007 to $272 million at the end of last year.

The cuts will not influence funding for new programs such as the lower infant mortality initiative.

— Rachel Vesco contributed to this report.