First 5 Fresno board says black infant death report a ‘call for action’

Reducing Fresno County’s high rate of black infant deaths will take a community effort, First 5 commissioners learned Wednesday at a review of a six-month research project to look at reasons why so many babies die before their first birthday.

Blacks are 5.3% of the county’s population but account for 15.3% of all infant deaths. Black babies are three times more likely to die in their first year of life than white and Hispanic infants.

“This is a call for action,” said Henry R. Perea, First 5 Commission chairman and a Fresno County supervisor.

Perea said a community meeting that had been scheduled for next Friday would be rescheduled to allow time for the commission to find a location in the black community. “It’s critical that we hold the meeting in the African American community,” he said.

Pastor Tyrone Carter of the Aphesis Ministry in Fresno said churches should get involved. “We have to begin first to help ourselves because it is our community.”

And Kendrick Smith, a First 5 security guard, said any plan should include black men. “If you need a person to speak to young men, I will gladly step up and help.”

Results of the study presented by researchers from Fresno State’s Central Valley Health Policy Institute were upsetting, commissioners said.

Black mothers interviewed in two focus groups for the project said they had:

▪ little or no social support,

▪ little or no information prior to their pregnancy about the risks of infant death,

▪ negative experiences at clinics,

▪ and high levels of stress.

The women, all from southwest Fresno, said they liked their neighborhoods — but those can be violent places, they said. The women also said they lack social resources and accessibility to grocery stores where they can buy healthy and affordable food.

The black mothers also experienced a lack of accessible and culturally appropriate health care services, said Marlene Bengiamin, research director at Fresno State’s Central Valley Health Policy Institute, which conducted the interviews and analyzed the black infant death rates.

And Bengiamin said she would be remiss to not mention that “race came up as a huge issue in our discussions.”

The study is long overdue, Erica Alexander, who runs the county’s Black Infant Health program, told commissioners. The community “needs to know what it is like to be a black woman in this county, even without being pregnant,” she said.

Alexander said it will take a community effort to reduce infant deaths. “Black Infant Health (program) cannot do it alone.”

The Black Infant Health program has fewer resources now to help, said Lauren Lessard, a project researcher. Program funds have decreased by more than $1,000 per birth since 2007, she said. The county was allocated $1,400 per birth eight years ago; today it gets slightly more than $200 per birth, she said.

Lessard said she couldn’t say the decrease in funds for the black infant health program have caused an increase in deaths, but there is a correlation.

Increasing funding for the Black Infant Health program is one of 30 recommendations Lessard said came from an advisory group that met during the six-month project.

Other recommendations include creating a pilot project to encourage social support, coordination of services and dissemination of accurate, timely health information up to and following pregnancy; identifying current mothers who are at high risk for future infant deaths; and conducting an expanded needs assessment in the county.

The research also found the health of the mother before conception is a factor in infant death. Fresno County black women are more likely to be in poor health before pregnancy than black mothers elsewhere in California and nationwide, including having diabetes and high blood pressure.

More research also needs to be done on factors found to decrease the risk of a black infant death, including a mother’s participation in WIC (Women, Infants and Children nutrition program), being foreign-born and having a college degree.

At the end of the presentation, Commissioner Shannon Koontz said: “Our job is to get as much mileage out of that study as we can.”

Commissioner Kari Gilbert said the information “moved me.” And Commissioner Dawan Utecht had to wipe tears, as she said, “I have children .. this all speaks to me.”

Barbara Anderson: 559-441-6310, @beehealthwriter

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