Healthy Start Annual Symposium discusses Black infant and maternal mortality

CHRISTIN FARMER, of Cleveland, is the founder and CEO of Birthing Beautiful Communities. She was one of the featured guest speakers at Healthy Start’s Annual Symposium, May 21, in Oakland. (Photos by J.L. Martello)

In 2015, the infant mortality rate in America for Whites was 4.8 per 1,000 live births.
For African American infants, the mortality rate was 11.7—more than double its White counterparts.
At Healthy Start’s 15th Annual Symposium, held May 21 at The University Club in Oakland, the message from CEO Jada Shirriel was clear: “We need to move (infant mortality) from a private tragedy to a public health crisis.”
Losing a child during the childbirth process or within the first 12 months after birth is considered infant mortality by definition. It’s a situation that most mothers don’t want to talk about, Shirriel said. “It’s hurtful…but we need to elevate this conversation so that we can look at why it’s happening.”
Healthy Start Inc. is a federal program dedicated to reducing disparities in maternal and infant health status in high-risk communities. It supports women before, during and after pregnancy by addressing the health and social service needs of the mother, strengthening family resilience, and engaging community partners to enhance systems of care.
Healthy Start Pittsburgh, located at 400 Lexington Ave. in Point Breeze, has been in existence for over 25 years. Shirriel told the New Pittsburgh Courier her staff constantly seeks out local mothers to enter the program. “We focus on specific things like prenatal care, breastfeeding, smoking cessation, (a mother’s) mental health such as postpartum depression,” and proper sleeping habits, Shirriel said. It’s all centered around “helping women to have healthy pregnancies, to have a problem-free childbirth, and for their baby to reach his or her first birthday.”
JADA SHIRRIEL, CEO of Healthy Start Pittsburgh.

The annual symposium is a way to get some of the brightest minds in one room, and hold an open and honest discussion on how to curb infant mortality, and maternal mortality. Mothers are also susceptible to death during the pregnancy process, which was a topic discussed by keynote speaker Adriana Gallardo, engagement reporter at Pro Publica. Gallardo reported that the U.S. had the worst rate of maternal deaths in the “developed” world, and that up to 60 percent of the deaths were preventative. The series was the 2018 winner of the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
More than 100 people attended the daylong event, including a number of nursing students from the University of Pittsburgh. Those who attended the symposium and completed the evaluation received continuing education units. Students from the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work were also afforded the same opportunity.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the United States’ infant mortality rate in 2016 was 5.9 (deaths per 1,000 live births). Pennsylvania’s infant mortality rate in 2016 was slightly above the average, at 6.1. Twenty-two states had a 2016 infant mortality rate higher than Pennsylvania, including neighboring states West Virginia (7.3) and Ohio (7.4). Alabama had the highest 2016 infant mortality rate (9.1).
Pennsylvania’s infant mortality rate has declined, when compared with 2005 figures. In that year, the rate was 7.5, or 1,061 deaths before the age of 1. Pennsylvania recorded 857 deaths in 2016.
For African Americans, it’s a story in and of itself. A CDC report from March 2017 said that from 2005 to 2012, Black infant mortality rates declined…from 14.3 to 11.6 per 1,000 live births. In 2015, the Black infant mortality rate was 11.7 – more than double the 4.8 for Whites in the same year.
Christin Farmer, founder and executive director of Birthing Beautiful Communities, based in Cleveland, told the Courier that Cuyahoga County’s Black infant mortality rate is nine times that as Whites. The wide disparity is mainly due to the White infant mortality showing a marked decline in recent years in the county, where Cleveland is located.
Farmer, who also was a speaker and panelist at the symposium, said her 20-person staff has a relatively easy time finding mothers to assist. She said mothers are happy to know organizations like Birthing Beautiful Communities exist. “This is a need, this is not something that can go away,” she told the Courier exclusively. “This is something needs to be embedded into our society and embedded into our culture. Women supporting women is not a new concept.”
Generally, there are two causes for infant mortality, Shirriel said—preterm (or premature) birth, or after birth, SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). Healthy Start Pittsburgh works to give mothers the education and support necessary to help prevent these causes of death. But at times, infant mortality may be inevitable. But for Shirriel, she said Healthy Start is still there to help the mother cope with the loss. “We don’t want women who suffer losses isolated, feeling alone, feeling like it’s a singular issue,” she said. “Now what’s coming to light is, it’s a public health issue. It’s an issue that speaks to the inequities in our system and some of the gaps in our medical system and in policy.”
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