From all indications, Meridith Merchant was experiencing a healthy pregnancy. The then 33-year-old married psychologist had taken good care of herself and the baby growing inside her. But life’s stress caught up with her when Merchant gave birth prematurely to a 2-pound, 1-ounce baby girl who died before her first birthday. She joined hundreds of African-American and minority women whose babies die at a disproportionately higher rate than other races due to a range of health and environmental factors.
“As I look back, there were some stressful issues in my life,” said Merchant, whose daughter died in 2006. “Family members need to be aware of how they act around pregnant women and the ways their actions can affect the pregnancy.”
She said research shows that infant mortality is attacking college educated black women like herself, at much higher rates than other populations.
Merchant, an African-American woman, told her story to attendees at CSUN-PPE’s (Preconception Peer Educators) “Healthy Families Begin with You” seminar on Tuesday, April 12 at California State University, Northridge. She said her pregnancy and subsequent loss inspired her passion for organic living and empowering women during pregnancy and birth. She is now the coordinator of the Partnerships for Families program at Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica.
The goal of the seminar was to increase awareness, on campus and throughout the community about the infant mortality crisis in the United States and to promote a healthy lifestyle before pregnancy, or preconception as part of National Minority Health Month.
The event was the first on CSUN’s campus aimed at lowering infant mortality rates, the rate at which babies less than one year old die, and reducing health disparities, or the inequalities that exist between groups of people due to income, access to healthy foods, housing, lack of educational opportunities and other major risk factors, especially among minorities.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in 1998 the U.S. ranked 28th highest worldwide in infant mortality. This ranking is due in large part to disparities which continue to exist among various racial and ethnic groups in this country, particularly African Americans. Infant mortality among African Americans in 2000 occurred at a rate of 14.1 deaths per 1,000 live births. This is more than twice the national average of 6.9 deaths per 1,000 live births.
The California Department of Public Health CDPH reports that African Americans in Los Angeles County have a rate of about 12 infant deaths per 1,000 live births, while whites have a rate of four infant deaths. The overall rate for Los Angeles County is 4.9 to 5.4 infant deaths per 1,000 live births in 2007.
The leading causes of infant death include birth defects, premature birth, low birth weight, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), pregnancy complications and respiratory distress syndrome. SIDS deaths among American Indian and Alaska Natives are 2.3 times the rate for non-Hispanic white mothers.
The infant mortality rate for African Americans in Los Angeles County is about twice as high as the rate countywide, and three times that of white babies. More than 11 percent of Hispanic babies and more than 16 percent of both African-American and Native American babies were born premature in Los Angeles County in 2007, according to the CDOH.
“This is a tremendously important event,” said Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Harry Hellenbrand, who welcomed the attendees. He applauded CSUN-PPE for taking the initiative to organize the seminar.
The seminar included a discussion by a panel of experts and a health fair. Participating organizations included MEND (Meet Each Need With Dignity), UMMA (University Muslim Medical Association) Community Clinic, Black Infant Health, Ride On Therapeutic Horsemanship, Care1st Health Plan, Kaiser Permanente West Los Angeles, March of Dimes, CSUN’s Klotz Student Health Center, the Institute for Community Health and Wellbeing and the Family Focus Resource and Empowerment Center
CSUN-PPE’s goal is to reduce infant mortality in the San Fernando Valley and surrounding communities through education. La Ronda Jones, CSUN-PPE president, said the organization hopes to help women understand the importance of being healthy before they become pregnant, which includes good nutrition, seeing a doctor regularly and being knowledgeable of family history.
“Few women know they should be taking folic acid six months before conception to reduce the risk of low birth weights and infant death. This is the kind of information we will share with the community,” Jones said. She said CSUN-PPE will participate in events throughout the San Fernando Valley, including a health and wellness fair planned on April 28 at Birmingham Charter High School in Lake Balboa and an event on May 21 at George Washington Preparatory High School in Los Angeles.
CSUN-PPE’s seminar was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, CSUN’s Provost Office, the Department of Health Sciences, the CSUN Institute of Community Health and Wellbeing and CSUN RIMI (Research Infrastructure in Minority Institutions).
For more information regarding CSUN-PPE, please contact La Ronda Jones, CSUN-PPE president, firstname.lastname@example.org.