Local Health Officials Combat High Infant Mortality Rate

June 6, 2013

This is Part I of a series examining the infant mortality rate issue in Charlottesville. Click here for Part II, or click here for Part III.

Having a healthy baby is all a parent can ask for. But in central Virginia, healthy births are a big concern.

The infant mortality rate in Charlottesville is higher than the national average and a growing priority for local health officials.

"It's going to take a long time probably to see the numbers either level off or get better," said Elizabeth Beasley, the senior health promotions consultant for the Thomas Jefferson Health District.

The district is working to combat the area's infant mortality rate, which is among the highest in Virginia.

"It's always surprising when you drill down and you put a magnifying glass on something and you see, 'Hey, we're not as healthy as we appear,'" Beasley said. "And infant mortality is just one of those things."

The United States average is 5.9 infant deaths per 1,000, which is among the highest rates of industrialized countries in the world. In Virginia, the rate is 7.1 infant deaths per 1,000, but there is more to the numbers in the Charlottesville area.

"The social economic factors that can impact are a little more complicated and more challenging to address," Beasley said.

There's a racial disparity between whites an African Americans in terms of infant deaths. In the Thomas Jefferson Health District, the infant mortality rate is 4.5 per 1,000, which is below the state average of 5.4 per 1,000. But for African-American babies, the rate is 17.3 deaths per 1,000, well above the state average of 13.8 per 1,000.

"It just takes that kind of analysis and looking at those numbers to realize that we have pockets of need that we can easily address to impact our community's health," said Barbara Hutchinson, the director of community initiatives for the United Way-Thomas Jefferson Area.

A number of factors go into bringing the rate down, and they have to do with both pre-natal and pre-conception care. Also, informing women of the options they have to doctors and other resources before, during and after pregnancy is a primary goal.

Sherrika Greene is one local mom who took advantage of some services when she became pregnant more than a decade ago.

"A lot of the challenges were missing school because I had doctor's appointments, and then for myself, I suffered from depression really bad," Greene said.

Greene now has three children of her own -- ages 11, 7 and 2 -- and takes care of her 9-year-old niece. She had her first son when she was in high school.

"It took my family and a lot of encouragement to even go back to school because I could've just dropped out," she said.

Now, as the operator of her own day care, she is helping Jefferson Area CHiP develop programs for other moms in similar situations to make sure they're getting the care they need, despite the physical and emotional barriers that might hold them back.

They're services that Greene said helped her become the mom she wanted to be.

"Wanting to be better for my child and my son and not making him feel like you were the reason I dropped out because I was a teen mom," she explained. "That was a mental challenge, but I overcame it. I graduated with a 3.59."

It's not only about education, but also finding the women who can take advantage of the services in their communities. That's where the Untied Way-Thomas Jefferson Area comes in. The group organizes and collaborates with a number of local resources and passes them along to those who can take advantage of them.

"It is communication and being aware of what the needs are and who the providers are who can meet those needs," Hutchinson said.

The struggle is constant, but since the infant mortality rate was identified as a problem years ago, the steps taken to address the issue have been positive.

"We're making some progress, but we need to continue to raise awareness about the problem so we can continue to address it," Beasley said.

It's all in a commitment to make sure every newborn has a fair shot.

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