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Health, Science, Environment

Missouri Nurse Steps Up Campaign for Black Infant Mortality Awareness, Despite Setback

Sherry Payne

A Missouri registered nurse who had to abandon plans to walk across the state to raise awareness of black infant mortality rates made her final stop in St. Louis Friday.

Sherry Payne, who is the director of the perinatal health organization Uzazi Village based in Kansas City, gave a presentation at St. Louis University on ways to improve birth outcomes for black babies.

"The numbers are really startling and people are always surprised when they see that the death rate for black infants is twice as high or three or four times as high depending on what part of the state you're in," Payne said.

Across the state, both the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and the Missouri Foundation for Health have found that the death rate for black infants is more than twice that of white infants. The Foundation reports that in St. Louis County, the rate is three times as high.

In some ways, the state's infant mortality rates are getting better. A report released in February by the MoDHSS's Bureau of Vital Statistics found that the state's infant death rate had gone down by 13 percent between the 2004-2006 and the 2010-2012 periods, mirroring a national decline.

But that same report also found that the state's rate still was seven percent above the national rate. And while both the white and black infant death rates dropped (by 12 and 16 percents, respectively), the wide disparity in those rates remains.

It's those persisting disparities that inspired Payne to plan to walk across the state in the first two weeks of September, which is also National Infant Mortality Awareness Month.

"The most common reasons for infant deaths that are preventable are inadequate prenatal care and the complications that arise from that, premature birth and low birth weight," Payne said.

Indeed, the MoDHSS found the leading cause of infant death in Missouri is perinatal conditions, "which are primarily related to prematurity and most likely to cause neonatal death." The Missouri Foundation for Health found that black newborns in the state were 60 percent more likely to be born prematurely than their white peers. It also reported that black babies are born at a low birth weight at almost twice the rate of their white peers in Missouri, as well as in St. Louis City and County.

Credit Sherry Payne
Missouri nurse Sherry Payne had to give up her plan to walk across Missouri to raise awareness about black infant mortality rates after an accident.

Payne said increasing access to and improving prenatal care could make a huge difference. In Missouri, black mothers get inadequate prenatal care at more than twice the rate of white mothers. That disparity increases to almost four times in St. Louis City and five times in St. Louis County.

Payne had hoped to talk to doctors, policymakers, researchers and residents about these challenges facing black mothers and babies during her walk for awareness. Her plans were scuttled when a hit-and-run accident totaled the support RV that was traveling with her.

But Payne was unhurt - and undaunted. After all, she already had five talks scheduled along her route.

"As I give my presentation I give ways that we can improve access to the care for African-American women, ways that we can improve quality of care," Payne said.

Giving those talks is why Payne said even though she didn't complete her walk, she considers her effort a success.

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