Scientists, doctors, politicians and community members must work together in order to save black babies, concluded a panel of USC experts who participated in a forum to discuss the persistently high rates of infant mortality, preterm delivery and low birth weight among African Americans.
“This is not a black problem,” said Jack Turman, director of the USC Center for Premature Infant Health and Development. “We might be losing a person who can change the world. Everybody has that potential; everyone deserves an equal chance.”
About 150 people attended the Nov. 5 community forum at The California Endowment, a downtown Los Angeles-based health foundation that focuses on expanding access to affordable, quality health care for underserved individuals and communities.
The event began with Turman giving an overview of the issue, citing statistics documenting how black babies have died at twice the rate of white babies since the 1850s.
Infant mortality is defined as the number of deaths of infants within the first year of life, per 1,000 live births. For whites, four out of 1,000 infants die; for African Americans, 10 out of 1,000 infants die.
“Black infant mortality rates are no better today than they were during the Civil War era,” said Turman, also an associate professor at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “This is unacceptable to scientists. This is unacceptable to Americans.”
The group then viewed “When the Bough Breaks,” part of the PBS documentary series Unnatural Causes … Is Inequality Making Us Sick? The segment further highlighted the problem of racial disparities.
According to research, although birth outcomes are generally better for those with higher education and income, black women with college degrees are more likely to give birth prematurely than white women who have not finished high school.
The documentary suggests that racism may play a part. Tyan Parker Dominguez, assistant professor at the USC School of Social Work who studies the issue, agreed that racism is taking a heavy toll on children even before they leave the womb. Experiencing racism, directly or indirectly, can trigger an emotional and a physiological response, she said.
Parker Dominguez, who is featured in the series and was the lead organizer of the forum, explained that with the “fight or flight” response, the body reacts to stress by releasing stress hormones that ready the body to defend itself. During the normal course of pregnancy, levels of these same stress hormones rise; once they reach a certain level, the body is signaled to begin labor. Women who are under a great deal of stress, particularly chronic and uniquely distressing threats such as racism, may reach that tipping point for labor to begin sooner than expected, she said.
Being exposed to and being the victim of racism over a lifetime also can possibly affect a fetus that has yet to be conceived, said Parker Dominguez, who added that chronic engagement of the body’s stress response can lead to physiological wear and tear on a body, which increases health risks.
Parker Dominguez referred to research that indicates that African American women’s bodies age faster than those of white women. This so-called “weathering” increases the risk for poor pregnancy outcomes.
“The body ages faster because black women are subjected to the chronic threat of social disadvantages due to racism,” she said.
Panelist Lavonna Blair Lewis, a clinical associate professor at the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development, emphasized the importance of educating the community on the political process and ways to effectively influence policy decisions in order to promote social equity.
Community members expressed outrage, shock and sadness in response to the information learned from the panelists and the PBS documentary.
Georgina Serrano works mostly with pregnant Hispanic teenagers at the Esperanza Community Housing Corp., a community development organization in Los Angeles.
She said she was surprised to learn that this problem has existed for so long.
“It is the responsibility of everyone to help every single woman, no matter the color,” she said. “It is our responsibility as humans.”
Marilyn Flynn, dean of the USC School of Social Work, was on hand to support the cause. She commended the panel and audience for coming together in an effort to discuss solutions.
“Unequal distribution of resources in society results in unequal health outcomes in different populations,” Flynn said.
Flynn agreed with the panel about the seriousness of the issue, but she was optimistic that with the help of all stakeholders, including the community at large, progress can be made toward equality for all. She assured the group that USC, the School of Social Work and the Center for Premature Infant Health and Development are committed to solving social problems.
The forum was one of dozens across the country focusing on inequality and health since the PBS series aired earlier this year. The documentary investigates the stories and findings that are shaking up conventional notions about what makes individuals healthy or sick.
The event was sponsored by the USC School of Social Work and the USC Center for Premature Infant Health and Development. Community partners included the March of Dimes Greater Los Angeles, the Pasadena Black Infant Health Program, the Pasadena Birthing Project, Los Angeles Black Infant Health and the California Black Women’s Health Project.
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