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To Fight Racial Disparities In Infant Mortality, Columbus Looks To Cincinnati

African American baby

Ohio’s three major cities have concerted efforts to reduce infant mortality—but some are seeing better results in addressing long-standing racial disparities.

In southwest Ohio, Cradle Cincinnati had a banner year for its infant mortality reduction program. The organization recently announced that Hamilton County’s infant mortality rate dropped by almost a quarter.

Community strategy director Dr. Meredith Shockley-Smith says it’s because the organization started making concerted efforts to pay more attention to its most impacted demographic.

“What happened there was that we saw the pre-term birth of black babies go significantly down,” Shockley-Smith says. “We had a 24% decrease in infant deaths. So that is celebratory, but we still have a long way to go.”

Shockley-Smith attributes the dramatic decrease a strategy shift Cradle Cincinnati made this year. Since infant mortality disproportionately impacts African American women, the organization created community advisory boards of Black women and had them lead outreach efforts.

“Those women went and asked the Black women across our city how they needed to be supported, so they could see numbers change. We brought back that data and we started doing it,” Shockley-Smith says. “We trusted Black women, we built strong communities.”

In 2019, Cradle Cincinnati reported that 96 babies died in Hamilton County, 14 fewer babies than the previous year.

In Columbus, CelebrateOne is the city oganization trying to reduce infant mortality rates. And while they've made progress, it's not on pace with Cincinnati: 127 babies died before their first birthday in Franklin County in 2019, down from 138 babies in 2018.

“If you don’t reduce the racial disparity rate, there’s no way we’re ever gonna be able to reduce the infant mortality rate in our community,” says Priyam Chokshi, Celebrate One director of community and legislative strategies.

Rest, Relax And Repower

Both Cradle Cincinnati and CelebrateOne cite pre-mature births as the leading cause of infant mortality. And both organizations say that stress on the mother plays a huge role in whether a baby will be born prematurely.

In addition to putting Black women at the forefront of community outreach, Cradle Cincinnati created a group called Queens Village to bring Black women together for stress-relieving activities. The program brings in Black yoga instructors and caterers to a space for afternoon events.

“Queens Village is a community of Black women who gather together to rest, relax and repower,” Shockley-Smith says. “And in that space we talk about infant mortality, but also what else might be stressing us. We also laugh together and support each other.”

Celebrate One is looking to emulate this network.

“Really admire Cincinnati’s work in Queens Village,” Chokshi says. “I think that’s something we hope to emulate in our community, and we actually have a meeting with their group in early August to discuss further.”

After meeting with Cradle Cincinnati, CelebrateOne hopes to make movement on creating more spaces for Black women to educate one another and reduce their stress levels.

Celebrate One also formed a partnership with Columbus City Schools, establishing a memorandum of understanding. The organization will work with school staff and health educators like Columbus Public Health, Nationwide Children's Hospital and OhioHealth to implement a sex-ed program called “Get Real.”

“Every building is different in terms of their curriculum when it comes to health,” Chokshi says. “Either it doesn’t exist or it exists on a level where it’s just a half a credit requirement and it’s phys ed for example, or gym class.”

Chokshi says CelebrateOne got involved because of the lack of state health education standards for public schools. Their goal is to address teen pregnancy, which contributes to prematurity, the leading driver of infant mortality.

Adora Namigadde was a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU News in February 2017. A Michigan native, she graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in French.