WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - A task force comprised of local health advocates and physicians are banding together to address concerning racial gaps in the Cape Fear’s infant mortality rates.
Black infants are less likely to survive to their first birthday than white infants. North Carolina is the 11th worst state in the nation for infant death with a consistent and stagnant gap in outcomes among African Americans and Non-Hispanic whites.
After a 2018 report highlighting the racial disparities in infant mortality rates, New Hanover Regional Medical Center identified eliminating those gaps as a top priority. The effort has grown since then and blossomed into a robust network of helpers, known as First Year Cape Fear.
“Knowing that babies are dying --Black babies are dying at a higher rate and that Black moms are also dying at a higher rate is really striking. It’s disappointing, it’s frustrating to know, especially because we know the root cause of this is racism,” said First Year Cape Fear’s lead, Marissa Bryant Franks.
Franks is also the health equity outreach coordinator at NHRMC.
In New Hanover County, Black babies are 2.3 times more likely to die in their first year of life than white babies. In Columbus County its 2.2 times, and in Pender County, Black babies are 4.8 times more likely to die than white infants.
Dr. Naomi Flock is a community family physician at Med North who serves as a physician voice for First Year Cape Fear.
“I just don’t think there’s a way to deny it when you really talk to these moms and hear what they’ve experienced,” said Dr. Flock.
According to the organization, Black women in the Cape Fear experience higher rates of preterm birth, cesarean delivery, maternal chronic disease, and face obstacles related to breastfeeding and accessing prenatal care.
Doctors agree the metric of infant mortality is an indicator of a much more widespread problem.
“Infant mortality is really that reflection of the overall health of society so that’s just a snapshot a pulse a mirror image of what’s going on," said Dr. Naomi Flock.
To change the outcome for Black infants, First Year Cape Fear is focusing on making sure Black mothers have the care and support they need. The group is asking for mothers to tell their stories and pushing forward with research, awareness campaigns and education for providers and families alike.
“We’re working on organizing some sessions to learn from moms to hear from them ‘what is your experience in navigating the healthcare system what are some of the things that maybe you’ve experienced as far as bias in the care that you received and the quality of care that you received?'” said Franks.
Franks hopes that by listening to the stories of mothers in the community, First Year Cape Fear can come up with strategies to improve the quality of care families receive and also connect black mothers to the resources they need to have healthy pregnancies and raise healthy babies.
This summer, the group secured a grant to bring in a community health worker and two dulas to serve needy mothers. The program will help 30 women each year for the next two years and is expected to kick off in October.
While the grant is a big step, Franks says its just the beginning of their journey.
“As a community we have to band together to combat this issue just as we would any other public health crisis or a public health issue because once again this is all rooted in racism. We’ve seen racism bubble up in so many ways just this year alone throughout our country and when we look at things that are happening In our communities it’s easy to turn a blind eye to things like infant mortality," said Franks.
If you would like to learn more about the effort, you can find more information on their website here.