Infant mortality rates in Memphis higher among African Americans

A powerful image that shows the reality mothers face after they lose their children.

Memphis is home to three Fortune500 companies with a combined average revenue of $26 billion, one of the best hospitals in the state and a nationally ranked children’s hospital.

While these factors may be working in favor of the city of Memphis, the city struggles with a main measure of a healthy community.

In 2011, for the first time in the city’s history, the infant mortality rate in Shelby County was below 10 deaths per 1,000 live births, as reported in a press release by the Shelby County Health Department, a 35 percent decline from the 2003 rate.

This map shows the seven at-risk areas for infant mortality in Shelby County.

In the African American community, the infant mortality rate saw a decrease from 21 to 13 deaths per 1,000 births. While the decline shows progress in the fight against infant mortality in Memphis, a city known for its businesses and medical facilities, its rates are still some of the highest in the nation, according to Kids Count Data Center.

Dr. Ruthbeth Finerman has worked with maternal health and infant mortality internationally and in the MidSouth over the past 30 years.

“It is an interesting sort of irony that you can have an environment that is rich in resources, but poor in the delivery of resources to those people who need it the most,” said Finerman.

People are under the impression that infant mortality is a problem only impacting those who live in poverty, according to Finerman. While that is part of the problem, there are multiple pieces to the complicated puzzle. But the puzzle of infant mortality in Memphis has a relatively simple solution when compared the other issues in the city, according to Dr. Patricia Matthews-Juarez who worked with UT Health Science Center to establish a center to study health disparities.

Memphis mothers share their stories and experiences of the impact of infant mortality.

For a woman to have a healthy pregnancy, she needs to have access to fresh, healthy foods, something hard to come by in areas of Memphis like Whitehaven, Frayser and North Memphis. She also needs access to water and regularly scheduled prenatal checkups, according to Allison Glass, the state director of Healthy and Free Tennessee.

Prenatal care and screening also lowers the infant mortality rates, according to World Health Organization officials.  In 2010, around 5.6 percent of all the pregnant women in Shelby County didn’t receive proper prenatal care according to the Urban Child Institute—1.6 percent of white mothers went without treatment while 6.6 percent of the African American mothers-to-be were without prenatal care during their pregnancy.

Transportation barriers, environmental conditions and economic conditions all contribute to the number of women who go without prenatal care and the infant mortality rate in Memphis, according to Finerman.

“Race, class, gender and discrimination as a whole is a fundamental part of all this because the stress that women suffer from contributes to that risk (of infant mortality) as well,” Finerman said.

Women who are living without insurance find it even more difficult to receive prenatal care, according to Glass. There are supplemental programs like TennCare, but she says they’re limited in the coverage they provide. The list of doctors a patient with TennCare can see is very short and their offices are difficult to get to for someone who is traveling by public transportation.

This video tells the story of Ja’lyah, a newborn who passed away after possible reaction to her vaccines.

In addition to TennCare, there are faith-based programs and crisis pregnancy centers, but according to Glass, these places pressure women to avoid abortions.

She said some facilities will try to pretend they are medically licensed to encourage women who are just finding out they’re pregnant to continue their pregnancy. Moms-to-be need access to evidence-based information and need to be treated by licensed providers instead of putting themselves or their babies at risk at one of these clinics.

“Whether you are living in poverty or not should not be an indicator of the type of healthcare that you get, but we often find that that’s absolutely not the case,” Glass said.

Memphis residents, according to Glass, need to band together to fight the stigmas of race, crime and poverty working against them. She says residents should demand that local politicians equally distribute basic resources like health care facilities, bus routes and grocery stores as well as awareness programs across the city.

Organizations in the community are trying to help as much as possible, but the city and state governments must participate in the fight, too, Glass says.

“I think it’s a really sad reality, but I think that in a lot of ways people are really showing what lives they value and which lives they don’t,” Glass said.

Project by Alex Gillespie, Megan Cook and Crystal Howard

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About the Author

Memphis Mirror
The Memphis Mirror is a project of the Multimedia News Lab, which is the capstone news journalism class at the University of Memphis. The goal of the project is to hold a mirror to the city of Memphis and reflect the various cultures, religions, identities, abilities and truths the city has to offer. At the Mirror, we rely on various media platforms—like audio, video, maps, photography and infographics—to tell the stories of our city.

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  4. Jenny Summers | March 14, 2016 at 6:12 pm | Reply

    Wow this is so sad to read! I have just recently moving to Memphis and I have a 6 month old baby. I would be devastated about this. The vaccine story is very scary! I couldn’t even imagine. Memphis should definitely be more resourceful with their items sold. Not good to hear!

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