African-American babies born in Shelby County are more than twice as likely to be born at low birth weights than white babies, according to a new report by the Urban Child Institute.
The report, which was released in early December, focuses on the black-white gap as it relates to low birth weight and prematurity, both factors in Shelby County's high infant mortality rate.
According to the report, one out of every 10 babies born in Shelby County is born at an unhealthy weight, which is classified as any weight less than 5 pounds, and 8 ounces. In 2009, 14 percent of black babies in Shelby County were born with low birth weights, while the problem only affected 8 percent of white babies.
Not all, but many, low birth weight babies are born prematurely (before 37 weeks of gestation).
"We don't know what causes prematurity, which is pretty remarkable since we know so much about so many things in health care now," said Hank Herrod, a pediatric immunologist and senior fellow at the Urban Child Institute. "We're left looking at a lot of epidemiological data that highlights how different social, environmental, and health issues relate to the prevalence of prematurity."
According to Herrod, the high infant mortality rate in Shelby County predominantly affects African-American women. He said the infant mortality rate for whites is lower than the national average.
Although poverty is closely tied to Shelby County's high infant mortality rate, The New England Journal of Medicine, which is referenced in the Urban Child Institute's study, points out that even college-educated African-American women in the U.S. have higher rates of low birth weight than college-educated white women.
"That fact has really made people stop and scratch their heads and ask what's really going on," Herrod said. "It's possible that even educated African-American females probably still have to deal with some stresses that a majority population doesn't have to deal with."
Herrod suggested that the disparity also might be tied to some "genetic factors that are not totally understood at the present time."
Although the disparity in college-educated women remains a mystery, at least part of the problem locally does relate to poverty, low education, teen pregnancy, and inadequate prenatal care.
Over 50 percent of very low birth weight babies in Shelby County are born to mothers who earn less than $10,000 a year, and 30 percent are born to women who did not graduate from high school. Twenty percent of very low birth weight babies are born to teens 19 years old or younger.
"The socioeconomic disadvantages are particularly dominant in Memphis among African-American women. They have strike against strike against them having full-term babies," Herrod said. But he also points out that, despite the statistics, most babies — born to either black or white mothers — are born at full-term.
"The reality is most women do have full-term babies, but it's striking the difference in the premature rate and the infant mortality rate between blacks and whites in our city and county," Herrod said. "We as a community need to think about the best ways to address that."