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Confronting infant mortality

When Nicole Gates founded the Infant Mortality Force in 2009, she had one goal in mind. “I wanted to be a part of the solution, even if it was nothing more than being a voice.”

by Tarrin McGhee

Special to the Tri-State Defender

(The New Tri-State Defender has partnered with The Urban Child Institute to make sure every child has the best chance for optimal brain development during the critical first three years of each child’s life. This is one in a series of stories and columns in our campaign.)

When Nicole Gates founded the Infant Mortality Force in 2009, she had one goal in mind.

“I wanted to be a part of the solution, even if it was nothing more than being a voice.”


After moving to Memphis in 2006, Gates was disturbed to learn that Shelby County had the highest infant mortality rate in the country. And when she discovered that the leading cause of infant mortality was premature births, Gates – a mother of twins born at 29 weeks – decided to get busy.

“The thought of all of these babies dying made me cringe,” Gates said. “I felt that someone needed to be on the ground, to take a real look at the issues and to help others understand them.”

National statistics released in 2009 – the most recent figures available – showed Shelby County’s staggering infant mortality rate between eleven and twelve percent, the highest among the nation’s largest cities.

According to the Urban Child Institute’s 2011 Data Book, infant mortality is now more than twice as common in Shelby County as it is nationwide. The Data Book also presents evidence reflecting the disturbing number of Memphis-area mothers who face health risks that cause an increased number of premature births.

Gates adopted a grassroots approach to tackle the issue of infant mortality in the most-affected areas of Shelby County. The non-profit Infant Mortality Force was formed to raise awareness and provide preventative measures to decrease the infant mortality rate through outreach, community events and training.

Concentrating on Shelby County’s African-American population – which has a higher percentage of infant deaths – Gates worked to recruit practically everyone that she knew to serve as volunteers to assist families with a greater potential of being impacted. Together, they drew a bead on Frayser, the community where the infant mortality rate is highest.

“For me, this work is personal. My twins were born small, each weighing around three pounds and they stayed in the Intensive Care Unit for approximately three weeks before release….The cost of their treatment, even with health care benefits, was $179,000,” she said.

“When I started the Infant Mortality Force, I knew that is was important for us to become trained in areas that would help other families avoid this situation, like adequate health practices, teen pregnancy prevention and child safety. Then we started going door to door to let people know about different resources that are available.”

Like The Urban Child Institute, Gates wants parents and residents to know that infant mortality can be prevented. But it’s going to take our community pulling together to make early investments in preconception care a priority. Additionally, comprehensive efforts to increase access to available resources – such as care clinics and healthy food – are essential.

Today, the Infant Mortality Force offers multiple programs centered on infant mortality prevention. Gates recently turned leadership of the organization over to her daughter and accepted a new opportunity. She now serves as campaign coordinator for the Shelby County Office of Early Childhood and Youth (OECY). The quasi-governmental organization, created in 2005, partners with organizations such as The Urban Child Institute to coordinate programs, advise policymakers, and promote community understanding that all children deserve to be healthy, safe and nurtured.

“We (OECY) work to address disparities by collaborating with different entities to decrease the number of premature births in Shelby County through education – the key to combat infant mortality,” Gates said.

“Expectant mothers, families and residents in our community need to know about contributing factors and ways to address them,” said Gates. “As campaign coordinator for OECY, I do a lot of community-based events to raise awareness and prevent new infant deaths from occurring.”

As of Sept. 1, 66 infant deaths had been reported in Shelby County for 2011. Twenty-two of the babies were born in Frayser – a predominantly African-American community.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nationwide infant mortality rate among African Americans is 13.3, double the total rate of 6.7 infant deaths per 1,000 babies born. This finding should be of particular concern locally, where there is a higher percentage of African-American residents, with African-American infants representing over half of all births that occur in Shelby County.

The Tennessee Department of Health reports that the African-American infant mortality rate in Shelby County is three and a half times higher than that of whites. There are several contributing factors that may provide an explanation for this disparity, including the lack of high-quality health care facilities and resources found in urban neighborhoods.

Gates said there is a need to cut the red tape to ensure that all women are given adequate care during pregnancy.

“ Mothers who live in less affluent areas are often uninsured and have to go through long, complicated processes to get basic care for themselves and for their babies,” she said. “That is one thing that needs to change.”

What else can be done to reduce the infant mortality rate in Shelby County?

The Urban Child Institute believes that investing in early childhood development is critical to overcome socioeconomic and cultural barriers that affect birth outcomes. The organization is working to stress the importance of improving the health and well being of at-risk mothers and babies.

Additionally, the Le Bonheur Center for Children and Parents and Porter Leath, among other agencies, have intervention programs for mothers. The programs provide education, case management and assistance in accessing community resources and services throughout the child’s first two years of life.

Reducing the infant mortality rate depends on increased community and government support to expand these types of programs, said Gates.

“It is important for all residents to understand that even if it’s not your family or your neighborhood that is affected, you can still educate others on infant mortality and how it effects our entire community,” said Gates.

“That’s simple and we can all do that.”

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