Thursday, June 11, 2015

Can systemic racism impact infant mortality?

by Zinta Aistars
for Rapid Growth Media
Published June 11, 2015

Peggy Vander Meulen and Ken Fawcett (Photo by Adam Bird)

When life first stirs inside a woman’s womb, her dreams have already begun to unfold around her child’s future. A nursery lovingly prepared, a first step taken, the ringing of school bells, the proud march for diplomas, weddings and future generations. For an alarming number of Latina and African-American women, however, those dreams darken to nightmares—a child’s death.

The infant mortality rate, or IMR, refers to the number of babies who die before their first birthday. “Rate” refers to the number of babies who die for every 1,000 babies born alive. The IMR reflects the physical, social and economic health of a community.
According to Peggy Vander Meulen, RN, MSN, program director of Strong Beginnings in Grand Rapids, a black baby is 2.9 times more likely to die than a white baby.

“That’s down from 5.2 in 2005,” she says. “The rate in Grand Rapids was very high back in 2003—the worst in Michigan. But we’ve made inroads; our totals are now close to statewide averages.”

Strong Beginnings is a Grand Rapids-based program formed in 2001 to address the glaring disparities in birth outcomes between African-Americans and European-Americans. “We are a partnership of six community agencies,” says Vander Meulen. “Traditionally, we began with a focus on African-Americans, but we have opened our program to all who meet the criteria of being underserved, because any loss of an infant is tragic.”

In 2004, Strong Beginnings applied for federal funding and received it. As the program grew, its financial needs grew along with it. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation awarded the program a grant in 2011 to expand its services to all of Kent County, add a fatherhood component, and to work toward promoting racial equity. A second grant in 2013 allowed Strong Beginnings to engage the Latino community to improve maternal-child health. 

And, this past May, Strong Beginnings was awarded more than $9 million in grants to expand outreach to African-American and Latino communities. The program will receive $4.3 million over five years from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to improve maternal and child health among Latinos in Kent County through its program, Familias Fuertes y Saludables. The grant will provide services during pregnancy and two years after the baby’s birth.

Partnering with Strong Beginnings are Spectrum Health’s Healthier Communities, Arbor Circle, Breton Health Center, Cherry Health, Family Futures, the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute, the Healthy Kent Infant Health Team, the Kent County Health Department and the Salvation Army Booth Clinic.

Ken Fawcett, MD, has been vice president at Spectrum Health’s Healthier Communities for about six months, but it’s been time enough to impress him with the difference the Strong Beginnings program has made, even as he understands the need for the program to do more.

“When we look at the incidence of infant mortality, it’s a reflection on our society,” he says. “This is not a matter of genetics, but a societal issue.”

“When the first generation of Latinos came to Grand Rapids, they were ...


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