High infant mortality a concern in Charlottesville
A healthy baby is all any new mom wants. However, for too many women, a lack of basic prenatal care can derail those hopes before their child is even born.
"If a woman has no prenatal care, she's five times more likely to have her baby die in the first year of life," said Deborah Conway, a University of Virginia nursing professor.
Nationally, an average of six babies out of every 1,000 die before their first birthday. In Virginia, that number is slightly higher, 6.2.
For years, Charlottesville's infant mortality rate has topped the state and national averages, spiking at 9.1 as recently as 2010. Even more troubling, when you look at the statistics for babies born to African-American mothers in Charlottesville that same year, it was nearly 30.
"Every time any infant is born unhealthy or passes away, that's something that's significant and we won't stand for that in this community," said Caroline Emerson, Vice President of the United Way of Charlottesville.
With such esteemed health care options like the University of Virginia Medical Center and Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital, it was confusing to many that a community like Charlottesville could have such a high infant mortality rate.
The United Way of Charlottesville along with other organizations such as Improving Pregnancy Outcomes, and Jefferson Area CHiP decided to gather all of the local expertise in the community to figure out why so many babies were dying and how to stop the disturbing trend.
They found the biggest reason behind the high infant mortality rate was that many women weren't accessing prenatal care for a variety of reasons.
"Some families aren't used to doing that," said Conway, who's also a United Way board member. "They say 'I'll go to the doctor when it gets closer to the time to deliver. Why should I take off work or risk spending money I don't have to get prenatal care I feel fine, why should I go?"
Conway became a part of a Health Impact Team that was created to connect women in what they found were high-risk communities with the resources that could help them have healthy pregnancies.
For example, through CHiP, Conway's nursing students began making home visits to pregnant women who didn't have the means to get to their prenatal doctors appointments.
"It's not just about putting up a sign to tell people to access prenatal care. It's about getting into the communities and, whatever obstacles moms have, helping them overcome those obstacles," said Emerson.
It worked. By 2011, just one year after the spike, the infant mortality for African-American babies in Charlottesville had dropped to 8.3.
Erin Cook credits these programs with helping her with her two daughters, three-year-old Genesis, and newborn baby Aubrey.
"I've learned a lot through prenatal care," said Cook. "I didn't know there were so many things that needed to be done like taking prenatal vitamins every day, making sure you're going to appointments. They'll also help you get there if you need to."
It goes further than doctors appointments. Through these programs, women are taught proper nutrition and are even connected with resources to help them stop smoking or address any potential substance abuse issues.
The support doesn't stop after the baby is born.
"I didn't really have any experience taking care of kids as a mom so they helped me know what I'm supposed to do and introduced me to different programs like the United Way and the United Way scholarship for daycare which I just got approved for," said Cook.
Recent data continues to trend in the right direction. In 2013, Charlottesville saw a zero infant mortality rate in African American babies. However, there's a chance that could be a fluke and until that trend continues year after year, local leaders aren't celebrating just yet.
"We hope we're having an impact but there's still a ways to go because losing even one infant is a big tragedy," said Conway.
After taking up the cause, the Health Impact Team found that most moms and dads truly want to be good parents. There are many resources in the community to help make that happen.
If you're pregnant, ask for help. Contact the United Way to be connected to the programs that can help you and your baby the most.