Rock-a-bye Baby 

Local and national efforts help Shelby County improve its infant mortality rate.

click to enlarge Tarvica Williams and daughter Ta'Niya depend on the Blues Project for post-partum health care.
  • Tarvica Williams and daughter Ta'Niya depend on the Blues Project for post-partum health care.

Memphian Jessica Love's twins celebrated their first birthday in August. That's a big deal in Shelby County, where the infant mortality rate is three times higher than the overall rate in the United States.

Love received pre-natal and post-partum care for Alijah and Amarion through the Blues Project, a University of Tennessee Health Science Center research study that provides health care and social support to pregnant women who might not otherwise be able to afford it.

"The Blues Project helps out a lot. If you lose your job, they help with formula. They help provide clothing, and they have an RN who works with you if you don't have insurance," said Love, one of more than 100 women and babies at the Blues Project's birthday bash at the Hope & Healing Center last week.

The event — held in conjunction with Shelby County's Infant Mortality Awareness Month — celebrated the first birthdays of more than 700 babies born here since the study began in 2005. Infant mortality rates are determined by the number of deaths among infants younger than 1 year old per 1,000 live births.

According to director Kimberly Lamar, the Blues Project will begin enrolling more pregnant women in early October. So far, the project has a 100 percent success rate, and the county's infant mortality rate dropped from 14 percent in 2003 to 12 percent in 2007.

Infant mortality is at its highest in North Memphis' 38108 zip code, with 31 deaths per 1,000 births in 2005. That's higher than rates in Vietnam, Iran, and El Salvador.

"The two major factors for infant mortality are pre-term delivery and low birth weight," said Lamar. "We provide education, and we've shown that women who participate in the Blues Project have fewer pre-maturity and fewer low-birth-weight deliveries."

In addition to the Blues Project, a new Shelby County Fetal Infant Mortality Review (FIMR) team is interviewing women who lost babies.

"Just through reviewing cases so far, we've seen a lack of education about how babies should sleep," said FIMR director Theresa Chappele. "A lot of babies are sleeping in cribs with things like teddy bears and blankets. Some are sleeping in the wrong position, and others are co-sleeping with parents. Sometimes the parents roll over and suffocate the babies."

The group hopes to drastically change that within five years.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution authored by Congressman Steve Cohen calling for a greater national commitment to reduce infant mortality in the United States. In addition, Cohen authored the Newborn Act, legislation that creates 10 pilot programs across the country aimed at lowering infant mortality rates in impoverished areas.

"None of the pilot-program locations have been determined, but they'll look at areas with the greatest incidence of infant mortality. If you have 10 programs and Memphis is number one [in infant deaths], there's no way we wouldn't be included," said Cohen, whose sister Rosemary died a month after she was born.

Earlier this month, Shelby Couny mayor A C Wharton addressed the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on the county's infant mortality problem. His speech was followed by a screening of A Healthy Baby Begins With You, a documentary produced by Spike Lee's wife Tonya and filmed in Memphis and Atlanta. The health department will screen the film locally later this year.

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