Even more appalling than the fact that the United States ranks 28th among major countries in infant mortality is the fact that certain ethnicities in the U.S. have considerably higher rates than others. The infant mortality rate for white women in the U.S. is 5.6 per 1,000 live births. However, it’s 2.4 times as high for black women—13.3 per 1,000 births.
Surprisingly, black women age 20 or older with more than 13 years of education have a rate that’s nearly three times higher than white women of similar ages and education levels: 11.4 and 4.1 respectively. The infant mortality rate among Puerto Rican women is 7.7 per 1,000 live births, and among American Indians, it’s 9.2. The numbers are high in these populations primarily because of premature and low-birth weight babies. Because a woman’s preconception diet, weight, lifestyle habits and other factors are known to affect the health of her pregnancy, and because half of all pregnancies are unplanned, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health has instituted outreach programs that take a “holistic look at preconception health,” says deputy director Mirtha Beadle. “We are targeting women across the board—and men as well—talking to them about healthy eating habits, exercise, prenatal care, stress reduction, being at a healthy weight and staying away from drugs and alcohol.”
To this end, Beadle’s office created the Preconception Peer Educators Program in 2007 to get the word out to college and high school students as well as communities. It is now operating in 14 of the most impacted states. Data on the outcomes are pending, but so far more than 900 students in 92 schools have participated as peer counselors. “It’s about making the healthiest choices possible,” Beadle says. “For instance, if a woman can’t eat fresh fruit because it isn’t available in her neighborhood—in this country we have ‘food deserts’— then she needs to learn and make the best choices available to her.”
Help spread the word
You can help stem the tide of infant mortality. If you know someone who is pregnant or who may become pregnant and is drinking, smoking, using drugs or otherwise endangering her baby’s health, you should find a tactful, constructive way to approach her about it. “It’s so important for women to communicate with other women in a supportive, nonjudgmental way about risky behavior,” says Beadle. Secondly, more women mentors are needed throughout the country for these blossoming programs; certain impacted areas have the greatest need. If you are interested in participating in your area, contact your local resource center for the PPE program (search at minorityhealth.hhs.gov) or call 800- 444-6472. Says Beadle, “We all have to work to shrink the infant mortality gap with better intervention, education and access to care.”