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Efforts to curb prematurity among African American mothers in Milwaukee

Posted at 6:29 AM, Mar 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-02 12:08:25-05

MILWAUKEE — Why are Black women giving birth so early?

The Wisconsin Department of Health and March of Dimes highlight the prematurity disparity rates. Statewide, the rate is at 9.9 percent.

When you look at Milwaukee, where there is a higher population of African-Americans, the prematurity rate is at 13.9-percent.

UW-Health pediatrician Jasmine Zapata always dreamed of having a family of her own. But the then-medical student felt she was in a nightmare when she went into labor at just six months pregnant, explaining, "I started having sharp pains."

To make matters worse, Dr. Zapata did not feel heard by her doctor. "I was told as well, 'Don't worry about it' and then I delivered a 1.5 pound baby at just six months pregnant who was fighting for her life."

Her daughter is now 11 years old and thriving. But as a pediatrician, she knows the deadly outcomes many other Black mothers have faced. "When you ask the question 'does racism play a role?' It definitely does. There's interpersonal racism, there's implicit bias that plays a role."

Which is why she works so closely with March of Dimes, to make sure more women of color feel empowered to fight for their child's life and their own, including, "More awareness about doulas and birthing support specialists," Zapata said.

Doulas are non-medical birthing coaches that could help lower the leading causes of death, which includes prematurity and unsafe sleeping environments. Kiara Schott is a doula wtih WeRise Community Doula Program. "Sometimes all they need is a little bit of extra help and a little bit of education, and within that they can advocate for themselves," said Schott.

The March of Dimes has been spreading the awareness of doulas, especially in Milwaukee. They believe they are in a health crisis.

"Black mom's in the state of Wisconsin are 65 percent more likely to give birth prematurely. They're five times more likely to die due to a pregnancy-related issue," said Emily Kittell of March of Dimes Wisconsin.

Black infants in Milwaukee are three times more likely to die before their first birthday, compared to white infants. Part of turning these statistics around is to get more people of color interested in the health field. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, less than 3 percent of medical researchers or doctors are Black women.

"One mother mentioned, 'I don't even have to explain my lived experience, or the weight that I carry as a Black woman, I can just look at someone else who has a skin complexion like me and know they understand,'" said Dr. Zapata.

Showing education, empowerment and dismantling racism are the cornerstones of ensuring every child thrives.

The Milwaukee Health Department has been paying attention to this staggering data for years now. Just last month, they launched a program which will employ at least 50 doulas to help black mothers in the 53206 ZIP code. That is the hardest ZIP code in all of Wisconsin, when it comes to birth rates.

According to Emily Kittell with March of Dimes, "The data is heartbreaking and we must provide awareness to our community as a start to combat racial inequity. Only 59% of Americans are aware of racial and ethnic disparities that disproportionately affect Black and other minority populations. There is also low levels of awareness among racial and ethnic minority groups about disparities that disproportionately affect their own communities. Black women in our community are five times more likely to die due to a pregnancy related health issue, which is the highest racial inequity in the nation when looking at Maternal Mortality."

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