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Talk focuses on infant mortality rates for African-American babies

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Anna Marie Lux
February 3, 2014

When Lisa Jackson talks about babies dying in Rock County, she gets all kinds of reactions.

Some people are aware of the high infant-mortality rates for African American children. Others are shocked when she tells them that an African-American baby born in Rock County is almost three times more likely to die before his or her first birthday than a white baby.

The disparities between white and African-American-mortality rates also are high in Beloit and even higher in Janesville.

Since 2013, Jackson has been raising local awareness about the critical issue of infant mortality as engagement coordinator for the Beloit Lifecourse Initiative for Healthy Families. The initiative is the centerpiece of a multi-year program to investigate and address the problem in Beloit with a coordinated plan to lower infant mortality.

Jackson will talk about the statistics, how Beloit is responding and what social conditions in that city impact health during a free presentation Thursday, Feb. 6.

“If people don't know, they can't take action,” she said. “We are providing education and awareness. We are empowering families to become advocates when it comes to their own health.”

Some of the social conditions she will talk about in Beloit are unsafe neighborhoods, high rates of teen pregnancy, unemployment and poverty, and single-parent heads of household.

Infant mortality rates are calculated as a rolling average of the years 2006-10, and the numbers come from Wisconsin Interactive Statistics on Health.

In Rock County, infant mortality rates are 17 for African American babies, 6.2 for white babies and 6.8 for Hispanic babies, each per 1,000 live births.

In Beloit, the rates are 13.8 for African American babies, 8.8 for white babies and 4.5 for Hispanic babies.

In Janesville, the rates are 33.8 for African Americans, 6.4 for white babies and 12.7 for Hispanic babies.

“All around the nation, we try to measure African-American, white and Hispanic infant mortality in the same terms,” said Janet Zoellner, Rock County Public Health nursing director. “We look at how many babies did not make it to their first birthdays for every 1,000 live births. We don't want to look at any one year in isolation, which is why we look at a 5-year-rolling average.”

She called the infant mortality rate “a very serious issue, and we don't see a lot of awareness in the city of Janesville about it.”

The health department has been involved with the initiative to close the disparity gap between white and black infant deaths in Beloit since the community effort started several years ago.

“But there is disparity in birth outcomes all over the county, and it is very concerning to us,” Zoellner said. “Every African-American woman who is pregnant is in our risk category. We know that, even if an African-American woman is college educated, her rate of having a premature birth is higher than a Caucasian woman who is a high school drop out. It brings up so many questions about what is going on.”

A wide gap in the African-American and the white rates also occurs nationally. The infant-mortality rate in the U.S. for white babies is 5.19, while it is 11.61 for African-American babies, based on 2010 data.

In Wisconsin, the infant-mortality rates are 14 for African Americans and 5.2 for whites, based on a rolling average from 2008-10.

In general, babies die because they are born too early, suffer birth defects or suffer injuries or unsafe sleep conditions, Zoellner said.

“We know that prematurity seems to be a much greater issue in the African-American community than in the white population,” she said, explaining that babies with low birth weights face greater complications.

The department is putting together a team to review infant deaths in Rock County after getting a small grant from the Wisconsin Partnership Program, in cooperation with the Beloit Lifecourse Initiative.

“We are looking to review two or three cases by May,” Zoellner said. “These things take time, but we hope to get some insight about why the deaths are occurring. We have to go about this process carefully and confidentially."

Families should not be afraid to reach out and ask for help.

“Many organizations in Rock County provide support to women, fathers and families to get through this time of life,” Zoellner said. “Pregnancy and early infancy are pivotal in a family's life. Just call our number. We want people to know services are available, and they don't cost anything.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.



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