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Racial disparity in infant deaths a medical mystery

The reasons are in shades of gray, but the data are literally black and white.

In 2005, black babies in Hillsborough County within their first year of life died at more than four times the rate of white babies.

By 2006, the disparity had dropped to 2.2 times the rate. A decrease, but "still too high," says Jane Murphy, executive director for the Healthy Start Coalition of Hillsborough County.

Causes for the deaths include premature births, sudden infant death syndrome and "co-sleeping," or babies sleeping in the same bed as their parents.

"It is a very complex problem," Murphy said. "There are no easy solutions."

Since January, her organization, along with Central Hillsborough Healthy Start Project, has gathered data and compiled information from focus groups, trying to figure it all out.

At a town hall meeting Tuesday, Healthy Start hopes to further engage the community. There's talk of recruiting everyday people to become part of a speakers' bureau that would travel to local churches and neighborhood venues.

Anybody and everybody is invited, from fathers who want to support their pregnant partners to grandparents who play a pivotal role in influencing moms-to-be.

The effort is part of the Black Infant Health Practice Initiative, involving seven other counties: Gadsden, Palm Beach, Orange, Broward, Duval, Putnam and Miami-Dade. Each had nonwhite infant mortality rates at least 1.75 times that of white babies between 2003 and 2005 and got a slice of $1-million in state funds to analyze the problem.

Locally, Rep. Betty Reed and Sen. Arthenia Joyner have been vocal in supporting the initiative.

The state money ran out last month, and the coalition will ask for more, but Murphy isn't sure it will come. "We also understand these are very difficult economic times," she said.

Meanwhile, the agency will do what it can — hosting the town hall meeting, for instance — to address the issue.

The solutions for each county will be different because there are differences between their residents and the circumstances, Murphy said. Miami-Dade, for instance, has a higher Hispanic population and more immigrants from the islands with different social and cultural backgrounds.

But research indicates that college-educated African-American women have a higher infant mortality rate than white women who don't graduate from high school, so the problem can't be explained simply by socio-economic factors.

While experts are still pinpointing root causes, data suggest that black mothers have a higher risk of health complications, such as hypertension and diabetes.

So one idea is to help improve women's health before they become pregnant. "Optimizing the mother's health will optimize the pregnancy of the baby," Murphy said.

But how?

That question may be as difficult to answer as determining why the disparity exists.

Sharena Taylor knows the heartbreak that Healthy Start wants to stop.

Healthy Start was involved throughout her pregnancy, counseling the 23-year-old East Tampa mother on proper nutrition and exercise.

Then doctors noticed a heart defect while her daughter was still in the womb, and a Healthy Start nurse helped her through the rest of the pregnancy. A doula met Sharena at the hospital on the day she delivered.

"It made it less stressful," Sharena said.

But little Za'Niyah Broome had to have heart surgery when she was just a week old. After going home, she developed a staph infection and was put on the heart transplant list.

She died early this year, on Valentine's Day.

When her unborn baby was first diagnosed, Sharena wondered if she had done something wrong.

"I asked the doctor or the surgeon, was it anything that I did?"

Was it something to do with family history?

It's hard to say why it happened, doctors told her. Many times, they said, these things can't be explained.

Healthy Start's town hall meeting takes place from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Children's Board of Hillsborough County, 1002 E Palm Ave., Tampa. For more information, call 233-2800, ext. 129. Free babysitting service provided.

Racial disparity in infant deaths a medical mystery 09/18/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 24, 2008 6:00pm]
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