Yisu Zheng / Sun Staff Photographer

Prof. Julia Felice speaks at maternal health for black mothers.

April 16, 2019

Black Mothers at Higher Risk of Infant Mortality and Chronic Diseases, Professor Says

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Black mothers face worse health outcomes than white mothers both before and after their child is born, which could result in high infant mortality rates and chronic diseases later in life, according to a Monday lecture by Prof. Julia Felice, nutritional sciences.

Felice’s research found that black dyads — the mother-baby duo — are more at risk for worse outcomes than white, non-Hispanic dyads.

For example, Black mothers have twice the risk of preterm birth and are four times as likely to have recurrent preterm births compared with white mothers due to their residence in disadvantaged neighborhoods and smoking behavior, among other demographics and socio-economic reasons.

Preterm birth is the cause of 35 percent of infant deaths, according to Felice. The infant mortality rate per 1,000 births is 11.4 in black women compared to 4.9 in white women. This number, from 2016, has decreased over time, but the gap between black and white women has widened.

Another critical disparity is seen in lactation outcomes of the babies. It is generally recommended that mothers breastfeed for at least six months exclusively, as breastfeeding is not only beneficial for the child — in the form of decreased infection, fewer cases of sudden infant death syndrome and pediatric cancers — but also helpful for the mother in losing weight, preventing reproductive cancers, and prolonging the return of menstruation.

But compared to mothers of other races, black mothers have lower rates of breastfeeding. This is partly because black infants are much more likely to be given formula in the hospital than white infants, Felice said, which is a strong predictor of lessened breastfeeding duration.

However, in the past 15 years, there has been a considerable increase in mothers who are breastfeeding, with black women at the forefront of this increase — demonstrating that outcomes are improving.

Felice ended the talk with a call to action as to how outcomes for black mothers can be improved.

This includes electing representatives who prioritize the health of women and their families and prioritizing the inclusion of black female voices in political office and health, as well as investing in programs that ameliorate the long term effects of negative outcomes in the first 1,000 days of newborn babies.

Felice recognized that much of the research on this issue is still incomplete, but that doesn’t negate the fact that the topic is important. She compared the discussion around black maternal health to the difference between saying “Black Lives Matter” instead of “All Lives Matter.”

“Of course we care about the health and wellbeing of all mothers, but we have substantial evidence to know that black women and their infants are really suffering,” Felice said.

“There’s a lot more work to be done in understanding why these differences exist, but that doesn’t mean we can’t start the work of dismantling them,” she concluded.

This event was sponsored by Partners in Health Engage at Cornell, an organization on campus that works toward global health equity.

“This is the first time [PIH Engage] has done a Black Maternal Health Week, but it’s an issue that has been gaining more public attention,” Diego Burga ’21, president of PIH Engage, told The Sun.

“It was worth it to give it a try, and have an event where the Cornell community can engage in learning about something they’re not enrolled in lecture for,” he continued.

The lecture is part of the Black Maternal Health Week, which occurs annually from April 11 to 17. The initiative was created by the Black Mamas Matter Alliance, an organization which strives to “center Black mamas to advocate, drive research, build power, and shift culture for Black maternal health, rights, and justice,” according to their website.