Black infant deaths far exceed other ethnic groups in Fresno County, report shows

Video: Woman credits Black Infant Health program for healthier pregnancy

Karmerica Wiseman, 20, is 5 months pregnant with her second child and credits the Black Infant Health program for a healthier pregnancy this time around. Video by SILVIA FLORES sflores@fresnobee.com
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Karmerica Wiseman, 20, is 5 months pregnant with her second child and credits the Black Infant Health program for a healthier pregnancy this time around. Video by SILVIA FLORES sflores@fresnobee.com

Black babies in Fresno County are three times as likely to die within their first year of life than white infants, and they die nearly three times as often as Hispanic babies.

It’s a statistic First 5 Fresno County board members will discuss Wednesday at noon at The Lighthouse for Children on Tulare Avenue in downtown Fresno.

The public is invited to the board meeting and to a community meeting on July 24 to continue the discussion.

First 5 granted researchers at Fresno State’s Central Valley Health Policy Institute $25,000 to study why so many black infants die and to recommend how to reduce the deaths.

“We were just sad and disappointed and outraged” by the black infant death rate, said Emilia Reyes, First 5 executive director. “We just couldn’t stand by and not do anything.”

By numbers, more Hispanic babies die in Fresno County each year than those of any other ethnic group — 82 deaths in 2013, the latest number available. That year, 25 white babies died. There were 21 black infant deaths and 14 Asian infant deaths.

145Number of black infants who died in Fresno County from 2004 to 2013

But 9,155 Hispanic babies were born in 2103 compared to 3,069 white births, 831 black births and 1,786 Asian births. And it’s the rate of black infant deaths per 1,000 live births that grabs the attention: Black infants died at a rate of 24.7 per 1,000 live births. Hispanic babies died at a rate of 8.5, white babies at 7.9 and Asian babies at a rate of 7.8.

10.6Number of black infant deaths in California per 1,000 live births in 2013

Lauren Lessard, a research scientist at the Central Valley Health Policy Institute, said the infant death rate shows black deaths occurred 176% more often than expected.

In addition to analyzing death rates, researchers at the institute interviewed mothers from southwest Fresno. Lessard said some of the comments were not what she expected.

Several of the women said they lacked social support in their pregnancies, Lessard said. “Women were feeling very alone.”

Reducing maternal stress is part of the focus of the Black Infant Health program at the Fresno County Department of Public Health, said Erica Alexander, a public health nurse who runs the program.

“Sometimes they’ve never really had an environment that has been very positive, very nurturing, or even very Afro-centric,” Alexander said.

We need to get African American women into services we provide and do it in an ethnically and culturally appropriate way.

Erica Alexander, coordinator of Fresno County’s Black Infant Health program

Karmerica Wiseman, 20, of Fresno, said the Black Infant Health program has made her second pregnancy easier than when she was pregnant four years ago with her son. “I feel completely comfortable,” she said. “I am very open and all the women are very open to me.”

Through the program she’s also learned about African American health issues, such as the risk for high blood pressure, Wiseman said. “They just give you more information than you probably would find anywhere else.” During her first pregnancy, her blood pressure was extremely high, but this time, she’s eating healthier and exercising and her blood pressure is under control, Wiseman said.

Wiseman wants more women to join — and doctors to know about it. Her doctor had not heard about Black Infant Health until she mentioned she attended a group. “I told him everything I learned in there and he said, ‘Ms. Wiseman, I just learned something today.’”

But the county is limited in how many black women can be enrolled. Eight years ago, the county had $1.3 million for Black Infant Health and had 11 employees. The county’s black infant death rate was 10 per 1,000 births in 2008. This year it received $483,000 in state and federal funds, which is allowing the program to double the staff from three to six.

The program can accommodate only 96 women. Alexander estimates about 200 to 300 women could be served if there was additional funding.

Dana Turner is worried about pregnant women getting where they need to go, whether it’s to a support group or a medical office.

The southwest Fresno women interviewed for the study had transportation concerns, said Turner, the comprehensive perinatal services program coordinator for the Fresno Women’s Group. Turner is one of 19 community members in a black infant mortality study group led by Dr. Gail Newel, with the University of California at San Francisco-Fresno Medical Education Program UCSF-Fresno.

Bus service in Fresno falls short, Turner said. At her office, the nearest bus stop is a half mile away, which is not a reasonable distance for a pregnant woman to walk on a 109-degree day, for example, she said.

“If you can’t get them (to doctors), you can’t care for them,” Turner said.

Serena Yang, an associate professor of pediatrics at UCSF-Fresno, is not a member of the study group, but said including the comments from focus groups should help the community in reducing black infant deaths.

“There’s still much to be understood, but I think we’re getting closer,” Yang said. ‘But we need to be careful how we approach this. We definitely need care that is culturally responsive in a way that is appropriate and individualized and can be received by families.”

Veronica Wilson, development coordinator for Fresno Street Saints, a gang prevention and intervention program, is a member of the study group. She said it’s difficult to know what should be addressed first to reduce black infant deaths, but her chief concern: “I just want to see us start something.”

Henry R. Perea, the First 5 Commission chairman and a Fresno County supervisor, said he decided two years ago that First 5 should take a lead in addressing black infant mortality, and the report to be discussed Wednesday will not end up gathering dust on a shelf.

For the past two months, he’s been going to churches to talk about the black infant death rate and encourage the faith-based community to get involved. “We’ve identified the issue,” Perea said, “but we can’t fix this without help.”

Barbara Anderson: 559-441-6310, @beehealthwriter

Meetings to discuss black infant deaths

First 5 Fresno County board meeting

Noon Wednesday at The Lighthouse for Children, 2405 Tulare Ave.

Community meeting

10-noon July 24 at The Lighthouse for Children

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