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Summit looks at disparities in black, white infant deaths

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

PRATTVILLE, Ala. — Black infants in Alabama die at a rate nearly twice that of white babies. 

Ending that disparity was the first topic of discussion Thursday at the two-day Infant Mortality Reduction Summit.

“The goal is to lay the foundation so we’ll know where we need to go and how we need to look at things differently as we move forward,” said Janice Smiley, director of the Perinatal Health Division of the Alabama Department of Public Health.

“These statistics can’t lie, so now it’s about what we do with it.”

In 2017, the black infant mortality rate was 11.3 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared to 5.6 for white infants. 

Organizers from the North Carolina-based Racial Equity Institute shared a detailed presentation with Alabama nurses, social workers and health professionals about why such a large gap can be seen between white and black infants. Jennifer Schaal practiced gynecology in Greensboro, N.C. for two decades.

She said black women with advanced education degrees, like a master’s or doctoral degree, have the same infant mortality rate as white women who only have a high school education.

“Race is an extremely important factor when looking at infant mortality and you can’t just point to a person’s socio-economic state,” Schaal said.

Schaal and Monica Walker, also a trainer at the Racial Equity Institute, said that even admitting and proving that race is a huge factor in problems like infant mortality is the first step communities need to take.

“First you have to know that the problem is consistent and has to deal with race. So now what we have given you is at least to have the language and analysis with which to take to your own work,” Walker said. 

The ADHP says factors in Alabama that contribute to infant mortality include low birthweight, preterm births before 37 weeks gestation and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

“So when you are creating programs or analyzing data, you have to break it down by race and look at the racial effect,” Schaal said. “We have to constantly address it and constantly look at it because what may be good for white people may not always be good for black people.”

Lisa Carter is an ADPH regional perinatal coordinator in north Alabama and said that the race disparity for infant mortality is a “huge problem” and can be seen in both urban and rural areas.

“The recognition that this problem exists and hopefully the health department can be the catalysts for starting more of these conversations in the community,” Carter said.

Smiley believes that several state agencies are beginning to look at race and equality for addressing state-wide issues, but that it will be a combined group effort that really tackles the issue of infant mortality.

“If we are going to move the needle in the right direction, we’ve got to have our legislators on board, we’ve got to have programs doing the right thing, we’ve got to be implementing those programs in the communities needed,” Smiley said.

“Everybody working together so we can address the issue.”

The summit continues Friday.

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