Saturday, July 3, 2010

"A Crisis in the Crib" Carnival: How can we save the lives of black babies?

"Disparities are differences that ought not be..."

Did you know that the United States is ranked 29th in the world when it comes to infant mortality? That over 400 babies under the age of 1 died in Shelby County, Tennessee in 2006 and 2007? That black babies are three times more likely to die before their first birthday? That in some places, like Memphis and Milkwaukee, the infant mortality rates for black babies are more in line with third world countries than the wealthiest nation in the world?

These are some of the sobering statistics brought to light by the "A Healthy Baby Begins With You" campaign, created by the US Office on Minority Health and featured in the documentary A Crisis in the Crib.

As we see in the documentary, the campaign has taken a unique approach to helping lower the infant mortality rates. The campaign focuses on pre-conception health, hoping to improve health outcomes for babies by making sure their mothers and fathers are as healthy as they can possibly be before they even decide to have children. To this end, Tonya Lewis-Lee, the face of the campaign, traveled around the country speaking to high school students about why taking care of themselves is so important.  In one scene, when she asked if anyone in the room knew of someone who had lost a baby, several hands went up, including one teenager whose sister had died at 5 months of age after weighing a mere 12 ounces at birth, and never leaving the NICU.

In addition to having Tonya Lewis-Lee as the spokesperson, the campaign also created a Pre-Conception Peer Educator Program (PPE) which trained minority college students to go into the community and speak to people about pre-conception health, including preventing STDs and how a father's health can impact the health of his babies. They gave people pamphlets and hosted free health screenings. I loved the grassroots outreach and think this is a great way to reach people where they are, as well as educate college students about healthy habits, which let's face it, most of us were not too concerned with.

So after reading all of this you're probably thinking that it's outrageous and sad that there are still such health disparities, but that poverty is a huge factor here and that these disparities won't disappear until families pull themselves out of poverty. Eh eh. As shown in the documentary, black women who are middle class, college-educated and have access to health care are also three times more likely to lose their babies in their first year of life.

Let that marinate for a minute. For black women, the greatest determining factor of whether or not their babies will die in the first year of life is their race. In fact, studies have shown that black educated women had higher infant mortality rates than white high school drop outs. I think that this is one of the most powerful messages of the film, that even if we were to get everyone in our communities healthy and seeing a doctor regularly, that racism would mean that our health outcomes would always be worse. The stress of being a black woman in America trumps healthy habits.

And while I think that pre-conception health is vitally important, that battling systemic racism in the healthcare field is a lofty goal, and that preventing babies from being born too small and too early is going to make a huge difference in these numbers, I was sorely disappointed that the words "breastfeeding" and "breast milk" were not uttered once in the entire film.

Increasing breastfeeding rates in the black community is actually not even one of the campaign goals, which I certainly find to be strange. The film shows several families who have babies in the NICU and not one mention of these moms pumping breast milk for their babies or how breast milk can literally be the difference between life and death for a preemie in the NICU. As I sat and watched a couple in tears, sitting next to their baby in an incubator, talk about how they spend 24 hours a day in that hospital and wish there was something they could do to take the baby's pain away and make her better, I was shocked that breastfeeding was not mentioned as a way to save the lives of black babies. In fact, I only caught one mention of breastfeeding and only because I am eagle-eyed and was really looking for it. At the 29:58 mark, there is footage of a health fair where a pamphlet from the Shelby County Breastfeeding Coalition is sitting on a table, next to some bottles, a hand pump and breast shells. That's it. Sigh.

Although "enjoy" seems to be the wrong word, I really did learn a lot from this documentary and I would encourage you to take the 30 minutes to watch it. If you know a young person of color who is a college student, send them some information about the PEP. More people need to understand how prevalent infant mortality is and that simply by being black you are at a greater risk of losing your baby before his first birthday.

This is an important film and a topic that is not discussed nearly enough amongst activists. While some  spend their time getting enraged over what are deemed to be unnecessary interventions during labor, we'd all do well to remember that across this country sisters and their babies will be at a disadvantage before they even get to the hospital, and even if they have a perfect, intervention-free birth. Our babies are dying and they don't have to be. These disparities ought not to exist.

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