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Public health initiative strives to reduce mother and infant deaths among Black people in Kern County

Black mothers and pregnant people see both the most infant mortality and the most maternal deaths of any demographic racial group.
Black maternal health care
Posted at 6:34 PM, Nov 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-17 14:07:48-05

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — Pregnancy can make anyone anxious about a lot of things, but losing the life of a parent or baby during labor and delivery shouldn’t be one of those things. For one set of mothers it’s become an issue of increasing alarm.

Despite fewer babies being born from 2018 to 2020, rates of maternal and neonatal death have risen, especially among Black women. From 2015 to 2019, more than 8 Black babies have died per 1,000 births in the state of California. Black mothers see the most infant mortality of any demographic group.

Maternal death rates reflect a similar story. From 2015 to 2020, more than 60 Black gestators die for every 100,000 births in California. Again, the is the highest rate of any group. Giving birth should be a happy occasion for every family, but for some Black mothers, it becomes a death sentence.

According to Brynn Carrigan, Director of the Kern County Public Health Department, the problem of maternal and infant mortality is a problem across the country and state, but the problem is magnified here.

“In Kern County, and even statewide and nationwide, Black women and Black infants suffer disproportionally from pregnancy-related deaths,” said Carrigan.

According to Carrigan, this wide disparity in mortality is why KCPH teamed up with other local organizations to create the Black Infant Maternal Health Initiative.

“It’s many different perspectives, many different agencies, all coming together to try and figure out what is causing this, and what are the root problems that are leading to these disproportionate statistics, and how can we make a difference so that we can start seeing how Black women and Black infants start surviving at much higher rates than what we’re seeing now,” explained Carrigan.

The program officially launched back in July and it’s still early days. There is still much more work to be done, and Carrigan says the important work won’t happen overnight.

“As we work on these, we’re meeting regularly as an Initiative to really make sure that we’re all headed in the right direction and gonna meet our goals,” said Carrigan. “We’re hoping that we’re going to start to see some improvement in the numbers in the coming couple of years.”

BIMHI program volunteer and doula Danesha Wallace says the organization is actively working with the community to meet their goals.

“I know that Black Infant Maternal Health is going to have dinners and meetings with OBGYNs in the community,” said Wallace. “We have public health meetings. We try to educate the public and educate outgoing healthcare workers as best we can.”

Wallace is not just an Initiative volunteer. She’s also a doula (DOO-luh), which is someone who gives emotional support both during labor and in the postpartum period, and an advocate for pregnant women of color.

Her journey to becoming an advocate began in 2009 when she lost her son Jeremiah.

“My son Jeremiah, he was born April 10th, 2009 and he passed away November, 2009,” said Wallace. “During my pregnancy, I knew something was wrong, and I was dismissed. I seen different nurses, I saw different nurse practitioners, different doctors. Really no eye contact. Nobody really listened to me.”

What must go through a mother’s mind during that kind of doctors’ appointment?

“That this is not fair, and with any situation I try my best not to go, ‘Oh, it’s ‘cause I’m Black’ first, ‘cause I always try to see everything from a full spectrum,” said Wallace. “Maybe that doctor was tired. Maybe I’m the 13th patient of the day. Maybe it was a bad day.”

But when Wallace saw how many people were having experiences just like hers and the impact it was having on their lives, too, she realized the problem was bigger than her. It made her want to take action to help fight this ongoing problem.

“With education and more knowledge and et cetera, I learned that my son’s death more than likely could’ve been preventable with education and advocacy and support,” said Wallace.

With the knowledge she’s gained since 2009, Wallace made the decision to become a doula in the community.

“And as a doula, just making sure that birthing persons and mommies know their rights, know exactly what goes on in the labor procedure, knows how to advocate for themselves, speak up,” said Wallace.

According to Carrigan, the whole purpose of BIMHI is to help women like Wallace.

“Bringing people in that have experienced issues, that know people that have suffered, that have died, that is important to come together with all of these different perspectives to really try to identify areas that we need to address, that may lead to a positive impact on some of these statistics,” said Carrigan.

Wallace says one of the keys to seeing those statistics change is to change how we treat Black women.

“See Black women as human,” said Wallace. “Black women are feminine. Black women need help.”

She knows it will take a village to see the mortality numbers decrease, but she knows she’s making a difference.

“I’m only one person, but I can still make some sort of change so that it doesn’t happen to someone else,” said Wallace.

If you would like to learn more about the Black Infant Maternal Health Initiative and how you can get involved, please visit the BIMHI website.