By Fia Curley
It was a health fair focused on stemming the tide and starting a new trend.
With attendees ranging from third trimesters to adults, the health fair officially kicked off the campaign to decrease the high rates of infant mortality in the African-American community.
"A Healthy Baby Begins with You" serves as campaign slogan and empowerment message, encouraging expectant parents to utilize community resources and become educated about the things they can do to give their babies a healthy start.
The event kicked off at the Town Hall Education Arts and Recreation Center (THEARC), a community center in Southeast Washington, D.C., as residents converged on the center to participate in health screenings and educational sessions about parenting. Topics ranged from breastfeeding and fatherhood to sudden infant death syndrome, while screenings for blood pressure, body mass index and blood glucose, and testing for HIV, were made available through local organizations.
"This is a real problem and this is something we have to address comprehensively," said Dr. Garth Graham, deputy assistant secretary for minority health at a press conference Monday. "We're talking about the future of this country from here on."
Graham referred to the high rates of infant mortality as an "American problem" and said the infant mortality campaign is just one piece of a bigger plan to decrease disparities among ethnic minorities.
Infant mortality is the number of deaths per 1,000 live births during the first year of life. Although the rate has remained stable for the United States at 6.78 per 1,000 in 2003, the rate of deaths for African-American babies is 13 per 1,000.
To help launch the campaign, national and local speakers attended the event, including campaign spokesperson Tonya Lewis Lee, author, producer and wife of Spike Lee, Charrisse Jackson-Jordan, philanthropist and wife of Washington Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan, Justine Love, radio personality for WPGC, the Rev. Dr. Michael E. Bell Sr., pastor of Allen Chapel AME church, and Dr. Gregg A. Pane, director of the District of Columbia Department of Health.
Lee, who also is a mother of two and the campaign's national spokesperson, called the rates an indication of a "public health crisis."
"We need to sound the alarm about what is going on in the community," Lee said. "We need our children because they are important to this society."
Lee, whose image and voice will be used in public service announcements across the country said she was honored and humbled to serve as spokesperson for the campaign.
"I'm here today because I believe we're really all responsible for each other," she said. "I am very much dedicated to closing the baby gap."
Pane, taking his latest bout at fatherhood with a 1-year-old son, said he viewed motherhood and babies as ground zero for public health.
"I think raising awareness is where it starts," he said. "Where the rubber meets the road really is connecting the dots, which often doesn't happen in public health."
To actually reach the community with this initiative, Pane pointed toward D.C.'s high rates of medical coverage for pregnant women and children.
According to data from National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA), DC Medicaid health plans scored above the national mean on nearly 80% of the measures (44 of 56). DC ranked in the top quartile in the nation on 27 of 56 measures (nearly 50%), that included cholesterol management, diabetes care and prenatal care visits. DC was above the 90 percentile on 18 of 56 measures (nearly 1/3) including immunization, Chlamydia screening, appropriate use of asthma medication and well child visits.
Rev. Bell, having dealt personally with the loss of a infant, said he only recently learned how prevalent the issue was in the African-American community after a women who recently lost her child was joined at the altar by about 30 other women who had experienced the same throughout the years.
"I knew at that moment that there were women who never dealt with the grief and the loss," he said, adding that he wants to find a way to involve the church in the efforts to decrease infant mortality and call on fathers to share the activities of healthy pregnancies.
"Our children have gifts that are dear to our world, so we lose a special being that is dear to our world," said the child and senior advocate. "It cuts across all socioeconomic and educational lines."
Fia Curley is a writer for the OMHRC. Comments? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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