Ohio's Black Infant Mortality Rate Second Worst In U.S.

May 29, 2014

The mortality rate among Ohio's African American babies is the second worst in the country. And in some of Columbus' poor, black communities the numbers are the same as rates in third world countries. Poverty and poor access to health care are to blame, but researchers say so is inherent racism.

In Ohio, nearly eight out of every 1,000 babies born will die before their first birthdays. Ohio's infant mortality rate is worse than the national average.

But the troubling news only begins there.

Troubling comparisons

In Franklin County, black babies are dying at twice the rate of white babies. A quarter of those deaths occurs in eight Columbus neighborhoods.

 

South Linden's infant mortality rate is the same as Guatemala, where 24 of 1,000 babies will die before age one. The Near East Side compares to El Salvador. The Hilltop matches the Philippines.

Faced with the heartbreaking numbers, community leaders formed the Greater Columbus Infant Mortality Task Force. It is trying to figure out why the numbers are so high.

"That alone tells you something about...our society," said Jason Reece, Ohio State University's Kirwan Institute infant mortality research director. "The way our community in some ways, I don't want to say devalues, but may not be paying attention to the challenges of some of our most marginalized." ,

Poverty

Of course, poverty plays a significant role in infant deaths. But Reece said more and more studies reveal racism is an underlying reason for the disparity in infant deaths.

"When we think about racism, you really have to think about, especially the experience of racism, as a form of stress," he said. "And when we think about stress in the context of infant health and maternal health, stress is really a toxin."?

Some doctors say racism can affect a woman's long-term gynecological health, as well as a developing fetus.

That could explain why black women with college degrees, good jobs and access to prenatal care still have a greater chance of delivering a pre-term infant with a higher risk of dying before her first birthday.

Ohio State Pediatrics Professor Dr. Patricia Gabbe said pregnant African American women face stereotyping and don't always receive the same standard of care as pregnant white women.

"They often are told, well, we can't see you this month, wait another month, wait two months. There are long delays," Dr. Gabbe said. "That has to send a message. If we valued that pregnancy, in my mind we'd say, 'Oh, you're pregnant? Come in today.' We haven't gotten that far yet."

A new program

Gabbe's Central Ohio program, Moms2B, was founded to help impoverished pregnant women. The support group connects them with social services. Moms2B has helped African American women, like Amber Broadus, acknowledge the role racism plays in their pregnancy. Broadus said she had become numb to inherent, and sometimes explicit, bias.

"They kind of gave us our feeling back. They gave us our nerves back. This is how it's supposed to be. This is what it's supposed to look like. This is the care you're supposed to receive. This is how they're supposed to talk to you," Broadus said. "And I really appreciate that because, again, this is something that's been going on for years. And a lot of this stuff is going on because people don't know."

Genevieve Franklin is five months pregnant. This is Franklin's third pregnancy. Her first two babies, both premature, died shortly after birth.

"I didn't have the right healthcare," Franklin said. "I was under a lot of stress."

Moms2B connected Franklin with an Ohio State high-risk pregnancy clinic. And she hopes this pregnancy will have a different outcome. For now, it's headed in the right direction.

"I have a nurse practitioner that is wonderful. Like, she calls me every week personally, and they just watch me closer."

Problems elsewhere

Columbus isn't the first community to face such large racial infant mortality gaps. Mario Drummonds leads the Northern Manhattan Perinatal Partnership.

Drummonds helped reduce Harlem's infant death rate from 27 per 1,000 down to 7. Drummonds said their program increased the number of women they could serve five-fold, and then targeted the women who drove the statistics. Still, it took a generation to make change.

"If you're planning a two or three year campaign, you've already failed," he said. "There has to be on-going constant work on the local level, knocking on doors, finding women of child-bearing age, bringing them into your treatment system, and bringing about health and improving the care that women get on a day to day basis."?

The Kirwan Institute's Jason Reece said he's encouraged by community leaders who want to tackle the issue. But he also wonders what's in store for Ohio.

"If [Ohio] the second worst place in the nation for an African American mother to have a baby, is this a place that communities of color would want to reside in if they had a choice?" Reece wondered. "So all these are very important issues that we have to address."?

The information for this story comes from the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University. As a university-wide, interdisciplinary research institute, the Kirwan Institute works to deepen understanding of the causes of -and solutions to racial and ethnic disparities worldwide and to bring about a society that is fair and just for all people. Kirwan Institute research is designed to be actively used to solve problems in society. Its research and staff expertise are shared through an extensive network of colleagues and partners-ranging rom other researchers, grassroots social justice advocates, policymakers, and community leaders nationally and globally, who can quickly put ideas into action.