Wisconsin Partnership to join fight against silent tragedy

Feb. 9, 2009

by Susan Lampert Smith

Earlier this decade, an African American baby born in Beloit, Kenosha, Milwaukee or Racine had worse odds for survival than a baby born in Jamaica, Sri Lanka or Central America.

In 2004, Wisconsin had the worst African American infant mortality rate of 35 states that reported deaths by race. That year, 125 African American babies died in the first year following their births, a rate of 19.2 deaths per 1,000 births. While the rate dropped in 2007, the most recent year for statistics, to 14.1 deaths for African American babies in Milwaukee, it still remains far above the death rate for white babies, 6.2 deaths per thousand. The most common factors contributing to the deaths of African American infants were premature birth and low birth weight.

“This is a public health emergency. There were more African American infant deaths in Milwaukee in some years than there were people killed by homicide. And yet the scope of this tragedy is not in the forefront of public attention.”

Phil Farrell, professor of pediatrics and population health sciences

Now, after convening a summit conference on the issue and commissioning an in-depth paper, the Wisconsin Partnership's Oversight and Advisory Committee is committing up to $10 million in a long-term effort to improve the chances for Wisconsin's African American newborns.

"Birth outcomes in Wisconsin will only improve if we all commit to programs that will make a difference," says Robert Golden, dean of the UW School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH). "Our school, through the Wisconsin Partnership Program, and our faculty and staff are committed to forming community partnerships to address this important public health problem."

Phil Farrell, of SMPH, and Lorraine Lathen, executive director of Jump at the Sun Consultants, will co-chair the Healthy Birth Outcomes steering committee, which is composed of leaders from the affected communities and UW-Madison faculty.

"It's a tragedy because these deaths are preventable," says Farrell, a professor of pediatrics and population health sciences and former SMPH dean. "We know the key will lie in improving health measures for African American women across their life spans, and in better prenatal care. Mother and child health are inextricably linked. This effort is designed to improve the health of generations to come."

Racine has the highest rate of infant mortality, and Kenosha has the widest gap between white infant deaths and African American deaths. Milwaukee has the greatest number of deaths: 77 percent of African American infant deaths occur in the city of Milwaukee.

"As an African American who worked in African countries for over 15 years, I was discouraged to return to Wisconsin and witness the magnitude of development work that is needed in southeastern Wisconsin to achieve healthy birth outcomes for African American infants," Lathen said.

Still, she said her work conducting focus groups with more than 180 low-income African American mothers, fathers and grandmothers has convinced her that southeastern Wisconsin communities have a passion and commitment to tackle the issue.

"This is a public health emergency," Farrell says. "There were more African American infant deaths in Milwaukee in some years than there were people killed by homicide. And yet the scope of this tragedy is not in the forefront of public attention."

Some facts about birth outcomes in Wisconsin (2002-06):

  • Wisconsin ranked last of 35 states reporting African American infant mortality rates in 2004.
  • Racine has the highest rate of African American infant mortality, with 23.4 deaths per 1,000 births.
  • Kenosha has the widest gap between African American infant mortality and white mortality, a ratio of 5.2 to 1.
  • Milwaukee has the greatest number of African American infant deaths: 77 percent occur in the city of Milwaukee.
  • Beloit had a rate of 19.2 African American infant deaths per 1,000, compared with 6.6 for white babies.
  • Compared with other countries, Wisconsin's African American infant death rate of 19.2 per 1,000 deaths would rank it 70th in the world, between Malaysia and Qatar. Its white infant death rate ranks 15th, between Slovenia and Denmark.

In addition to Farrell and Lathen, other members of the steering committee include: Georgia Cameron, state of Wisconsin Division of Public Health, deputy director of Southeastern Office; Ron Cisler, director, Center for Urban Population Health and associate professor, population health sciences, UW-Madison SMPH, Aurora Sinai Medical Center; C.C. Henderson, chief executive officer, Milwaukee Health Services Inc.; Tito L. Izard, chief medical officer, Milwaukee Health Services Inc., and clinical associate professor, family medicine, Milwaukee campus of the SMPH; Sheri Johnson, assistant professor, pediatrics, Medical College of Wisconsin; Murray Katcher, chief medical officer, Bureau of Community Health Promotion, State Maternal and Child Health director; Marilyn Kilgore, chair, Beloit Infant Mortality Coalition; Katherine Marks, chief executive officer, United Way of Kenosha County; Tina Mason, director, medical operations, Aurora Sinai Medical Center and associate professor, obstetrics and gynecology, UW-Madison SMPH; Gwendolyn M. Perry-Brye, Kenosha County Division of Health; Stephen C. Ragatz, chair, Department of Pediatrics Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare-St. Joseph staff neonatologist; Laurel Rice, chair, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, UW-Madison SMPH; Bill Solberg, director of community services, CSM Office Center; Betty Stinson, chair, Racine Infant Mortality Coalition; Georgann Stinson-Dockery, president, Professional Women's Network for Service, Racine.