Recognizing the lifetime toll of the infant prematurity and mortality crisis on African Americans

In a very personal and heartfelt program, a panel of women discussed the crisis of infant mortality and prematurity facing African Americans. The program was the sixth edition of the Addressing Systemic Racism education series, held Friday, November 20.

Watch a video of the program here:

The virtual webinar series is created through a partnership Lifecourse Initiative for Healthy Families (LIHF) and the rest of the UW Center for Community Engagement and Health Partnerships in Milwaukee. The speakers included Dr. Jasmine Zapata, board certified pediatrician, assistant professor at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, Dalvery Blackwell, executive director and co-founder of the African American Breastfeeding Network, Dr. Dominique Pritchett, a licensed mental health clinician from Beloved Wellness Center in Kenosha, and Preneice Love, LIHF’s community strategist in Racine.

November is infant prematurity month, a time to recognize the more than 400,000 babies born premature each year in the United States. Racial and ethnic disparities are significantly present in these preterm births. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2015, the rate of preterm birth among African-American women (13.4 percent) was about 50 percent higher than the rate of preterm birth among white women (8.9 percent). Rates of infant mortality, or babies who do not survive their first year of life, are also higher for African American people. Wisconsin has one of the worst African American/White disparities in infant mortality in the nation. In 2013, Wisconsin had the second worst African American/White disparity in infant mortality in the United States. From 2011-2015, babies born to African American mothers in Wisconsin were nearly three times more likely to die before their first birthday than babies born to White mothers. (Read more at LIHF).

The Nov. 20 program began with a personal testimonial by Dr. Zapata, who described the personal crisis she experienced when her daughter was born premature at 24 weeks old. Dr. Zapata said when she first started having early labor pains, she called her doctor’s office and told them she was in labor, but she was told the contractions were false and would go away. That was not correct and she later brought herself to an emergency room, where she experienced an emergency c-section. The traumatic experience of delivering a premature baby and the serious concern over her child’s survival caused a compound trauma that affected her physically, emotionally and even spiritually, she said.

Dr. Zapata said she knows from her own experience that a premature birth’s effects resonate to the entire family and the community, who all feel a shared concern or have faced a similar situation. Her story does have a happy ending in that her daughter survived and is now thriving, she said.

Dr. Zapata said it’s important to be aware of the changes stress and trauma from racism can have on the body, but also on the brain.

“That’s something we don’t talk about a lot. When we face trauma, our brains are getting hurt. There are chemical changes happening. We can’t see it, so we don’t talk about it as much,” she said. Research has shown these changes can affect the frontal cortex of the brain, which helps control executive function, and also parts of the brain that help with inhibition.

Members of the panel discussed how there is also a toll that African Americans face when they are a minority in academic and workforce situations, and so even people who are successful have resulting impacts from racism and stress they experience as a minority. People in minority groups may be living in a situation while also working to help others in their community – for example, a young mother may be working knowing the income is helping support many people in addition to herself and her family. Or a person in college may be living with many people to help them have shelter, she said. Recognizing these realities can cause changes to a person’s emotional and mental health is important and there are counselors and psychiatrists who can help, Dr. Zapata said.

Dr. Pritchett said the advice she gives her patients is that mental health counseling can help and there can be some healing from racial trauma. “Your condition does not have to be your conclusion,” she said. “Things may be complicated, however, you are worth it and you deserve a life where disparities should not be a barrier.”

Preneice Love, who experienced premature births with two of her five children, said the stress of having a baby prematurely does not fully subside. She remembered the sound of the machines in the NICU and how it stays with her even years later. “That beeping sound, it never goes away,” she said. She said her take-home message from the program is that addressing the needs of African American babies and mothers will not be possible until all communities recognize the reality of the current crisis.

“You hear so much debate, but let’s acknowledge that this exists … and then we as a community have the power to shift these policies and systems,” she said. “Once we acknowledge everything and then come together, like a force and a tribe, our babies will be thriving. I don’t know if I’ll see this in my lifetime, but my hope is that my babies will see this in their lifetimes. ”

Read more about the Addressing Systemic Racism education series and watch recordings of past programs.