Racism Linked to Infant Mortality and Learning Disabilities

Studies show that stress suffered by pregnant African-American mothers causes early births and lifelong consequences.

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On the long list of health disparities that vex and disproportionately affect the lives of African Americans—diabetes, cancer and obesity among them—one of the earliest and, it turns out, most significant, may be just when a black child is born.

A pair of Emory University studies released this year have connected the large share of African-American children born before term with the biologically detectable effects of stress created in women’s bodies after decades of dealing with American racism. As shocking as that itself may sound, the studies’ findings don’t end there.

Racism, and its ability to increase the odds that a pregnant mother will deliver her child early, can kill. There is also evidence that racism can alter the capacity for a child to learn and distorts lives in ways that can reproduce inequality, poverty and long-term disadvantage, the studies found.

“Racism is an incredibly powerful force,” said Elizabeth Corwin, dean of research at Emory University’s Woodruff School of Nursing,

In 2012, a stunning 11.5 percent of American children were born preterm, the medical community's shorthand for a child who spends 38 weeks or less in their mother's womb. That figure translates to about 15 million premature infants last year. Despite a range of medical advances, children born early face what can sometimes be Herculean struggles to survive. Once they arrive early, preterm babies are more likely to face short- and long-term health challenges that can translate into difficulty learning. That much is known, and after decades of research, well-established.

Every week in the womb matters.

Children born too soon are more than a third more likely than others to die within their first year of life or suffer with cerebral palsy, blindness, breathing and learning challenges that can last a lifetime. Preterm birth is the second-leading cause of infant mortality, a tidy term for the tragic death of a child before the first birthday. In 2010, the last year for which we have statistics, more than 7,000 of those who died were African-American babies.

Preterm birth is such a threat to human health that in October, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists moved the goal post for expectant mothers and their health care providers. Babies must now remain in their mother’s wombs for 39 weeks or more to be considered full-term.

The Issues Behind the Data

But drill down on America's premature birth problem—the absolute worst in the industrialized world—and the real problem becomes clear. About 10.5 percent of white children were born before 37 weeks gestation in 2012, the most recent data available (pdf). But about 11.7 percent of Latino children, 13.6 percent of Native American babies, 10.3 percent of Asian kids and a tragic 16.8 percent of black infants arrived too soon.

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