The rate of infant mortality among African Americans in some cities, including Milwaukee, is worse than that of impoverished Third World countries.
For Tonya Lewis Lee, a best-selling author and African American mother of two, that fact was reason enough to travel the country as spokesperson for a national awareness campaign. She was the keynote speaker for 550 attendees at this year’s Women’s Fund of Greater Milwaukee’s annual luncheon fundraiser, “Health: Closing the Gap on Health Disparities in the United States.”
Lee, married to film director Spike Lee, is a corporate attorney turned author and producer. She was asked in 2007 to be the face of “A Healthy Baby Begins with You,” a campaign launched by the Office of Minority Health (OMH), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services.
The black infant death rate in the U.S. is 13.3, 2.4 times greater than the white rate of 5.6. In 2009, the infant mortality rate among African Americans in Milwaukee was 14.7 per 1,000 births, more than double the rate among white infants of 5.9, according to the City of Milwaukee Health Department’s most recent report. Preliminary indications are that the overall rate in Milwaukee dropped from 11.1 to to 9.4 in 2010, but a full report, including racial breakdowns, is not yet available.
A national report from 2007, the Big Cities Health Inventory, identified Milwaukee as having the seventh worst mortality for African American infants out of 53 U.S. cities. The same report noted that Milwaukee had one of the largest disparities between non-Hispanic black and white infant death rates in the nation.
According to OMH, the top four leading causes for African American infant deaths in the U.S. are low birthweight, maternal complications, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and congenital abnormalities. In Milwaukee, the number one cause is prematurity, accounting for half of infant deaths. According to the March of Dimes, about two-thirds of premature births are low birthweight—the leading cause of infant mortality nationally. Other leading causes in Milwaukee include congenital abnormalities and their complications (about 25 percent of infant deaths), unsafe sleep, SIDS and sudden unexpected death in infancy (SUDI).
“So the question is, why are our babies being born too early and too small?” asked Lee. “It can be access to care or the type of care they get. It can also be the health of a mother before she gets pregnant, as well as her level of stress.”
Studies indicate that early medical care, education and encouragement for mothers to make healthy choices can help prevent infant deaths. OMH studies show that African American women are more likely to wait until their third trimester to receive prenatal care; their white counterparts tend to begin prenatal care in their first trimester.
Lee argues that mothers need to take their health seriously for the sake of their babies. “I think the first challenge is getting people to realize that infant mortality really is an issue in the United States,” said Lee. “A lot of people are shocked to hear the rates, and don’t believe the issue is that bad.”
Now in its 25th year, the Women’s Fund of Greater Milwaukee has worked to reduce disparities among women of all races and ethnicities in many realms, including health care.
“We have been involved in a year-long project focusing on infant mortality called the Lifecourse Initiative for Healthy Families (LIHF),” said Margaret Henningsen, executive director of the Women’s Fund. “There are so many health disparities among women of color, (this) was just a natural topic to select.”