Black infant deaths are soaring in North Carolina

Published on
October 10, 2022

Alarming Black infant mortality rates are nothing new in the United States. This crisis has been overlooked for years as more women and babies of color continue to die at faster rates than any other ethnic group. 

In 1990, the risk of newborns dying within their first year of life was two times greater in African Americans compared to white infants, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC noticed these sudden increases but didn’t do enough to intervene.

Thirty-two years later, Black babies are still twice as likely to die before reaching their first birthday.

In 2018, Black infants were four times more likely to die from complications related to low birth weight compared to white infants, according to the Office of Minority Health.

The U.S. has the worst maternal mortality rate among developed countries.

And North Carolina has one of the highest rates of infant deaths in the nation, according to NC Child, a local nonprofit that advocates for children in the state. There were 790 infant deaths in the state in 2020.

The city of Charlotte is home to more than 800,000 people.

About 10 Black babies die per 1,000 births in Mecklenburg County, compared to four deaths of white babies per 1,000 births. The Black infant mortality rate for North Carolina is at 12.5%, with the state receiving a D on the 2021 March of Dimes Report Card when it comes to improving maternal and infant health.

Some may ask why this issue is primarily affecting babies of color.

There is no simple answer to this question. 

Multiple factors can play a role, such as the mother’s access to prenatal care, her diet before conception, age, and education.

Although the Black infant mortality rate is high in Charlotte, other counties in the state with less resources have even higher rates. For instance, in Wayne County about 20 Black babies die per 1,000 births according to NC Child.

African American mothers are twice as likely to delay or not receive prenatal care in the U.S.

About 71% of women living in Charlotte and across Mecklenburg County received prenatal care in 2020, an increase from 61% in 2019. But how many Black mothers living in low-income areas received care in 2020? While the low birthweight and preterm birth figures improved slightly in the county, I’m curious to see if it improved or worsened in the Black community during the pandemic. 

A newborn can die from a range of illnesses such as sudden infant death syndrome, injuries, low birthweight, birth defects, or from maternal health complications.

Black infants have twice the rate of sudden infant death syndrome as whites, according to the Office of Minority Health.

Mothers who have preexisting health conditions like hypertension, diabetes, obesity, or smoking face higher risk of complications and health problems among their babies.

On October 29, 1998, I was born 4 pounds, 4 ounces at 34 weeks at New Hanover Hospital in Wilmington, North Carolina. 

After learning I was born prematurely and at a low birthweight, I am interested to find out the common illnesses Black babies are dying from in North Carolina. 

Although rates are high across North Carolina, the infant mortality rate may or may not be as bad in Charlotte compared to other counties. The city has two prominent hospitals in the area; the rates could be significantly higher in rural counties or areas that do not have a hospital.

I will look at autopsies and death certificates and obtain data on factors such as race, age, the cause of death, and when they died. 

Local and statewide initiatives are underway to address the problem.

For example, the Lactation Consultant Training Program developed at Johnson C. Smith University aims to diversify the field for Black doulas and aims to address breastfeeding and other health disparities among Black mothers and newborns. I will examine limitations placed on the program and investigate the lack of cultural competency among doctors.

I aim to take a closer look at nonprofits and other efforts in the city focused on addressing infant mortality and see what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong. 

I will reach out to support groups in the area to find mothers who have lost an infant or almost lost a baby after giving birth. 

As a 2022 Data Fellow, my mission is to spark the conversation about infant mortality and essentially save more Black babies.