Valley Voices

Fresno County’s babies get badly needed help

In Fresno County, babies are dying before their first birthdays. Think about that for a minute. Our babies are suffering and dying.

With an infant mortality rate that is double the state average, our preterm birth rate is on par with some of the poorest countries in the world. What’s more, 40 percent of preterm births occur in a two-by-five-mile sector with high poverty and poor access to health care.

Tragically, the needle has barely moved in decades and one thing is abundantly clear: Business as usual is not going to save babies. That’s why the California Preterm Birth Initiative at the University of California, San Francisco, has chosen to invest millions of dollars into Fresno County to radically change our approach and find a solution that will change the outcomes.

Funded by Lynne and Marc Benioff, the initiative is calling among scientific, clinical and community experts to end the prematurity epidemic in Fresno County. That means they’re calling on all of us.

The initiative is investing in only a handful of communities – Oakland, San Francisco and Fresno. Our unacceptably high rates of preterm birth and infant mortality caught its attention. But something else caught the initiative’s attention: a community looking for a solution.

Just as researchers were looking for a place to invest, First 5 Fresno County commissioned a study to get to the bottom of infant mortality in Fresno County. The initiative saw a driven community investing in itself and its children and decided to come alongside us to do even more.

First 5 Fresno was invited to join the Fresno County initiative’s collective impact steering committee and with three parallel community investments in East Africa – women, babies, and families are powerfully linked in this important work across the world.

In fact, I just returned from a life-changing trip to Kenya in which I was asked to present to world-renowned researchers about the impact community input has on change.

Community input will make all the difference in the prematurity epidemic. We began talking with moms who lost their infants. Their brave stories gave our study the power to teach us so much more about infant death in Fresno County. We learned that young moms feel alone and discriminated against, so they don’t reach out for help.

That affects their quality of life and quality of health care. Moms in our community are stressed, and the lack of support only makes the stress worse. These things all significantly increase the risk of prematurity and infant death. And they are all things our community can work together to change.

First 5 Fresno County brought the findings to the community last year to explore solutions. We asked for new, realistic ways to improve birth outcomes for babies. We heard the responses and now, with funds in hand; we return to get our community’s input on how best to implement the recommendations.

We have to think differently about supporting women, and we can’t possibly implement change without community input because the community, after all, is an integral part of the change we all want.

At First 5 Fresno County, we are proud to be a part of a team working diligently to do better for moms, babies and families. The team is made up of the California Preterm Birth Initiative in Fresno County and UCSF, the Central Valley Health Policy Institute, the Fresno County Department of Public Health, the Central California Children’s Institute and First 5 Fresno County.

There are a lot of great minds working together to find a solution and practical ways to support women before, during and after pregnancy. But the team can’t do it alone. This team needs your voice. No decision we land upon will be successful – no real change will happen – if we don’t hear from you.

Please, if you have a heart for babies, women and families, join us at 5:30 p.m. at Rutherford B. Gaston Middle School on Monday. We’re providing dinner and child care. Just let us know if you’ll be there by calling 559-558-4985.

Emilia Reyes is First 5 Fresno County Executive Director. Write to her at