Strong Beginnings works to lower minority infant death rates in Kent County

Aug 11, 2017

A study released this week by the Michigan League for Public Policy concluded that while infant death numbers are down in the state of Michigan, African American infants have a death rate that’s twice as high as white infants. And Strong Beginnings in Grand Rapids is tackling the issue head on.

Strong Beginnings is one of 100 federal healthy start programs around the country that are dedicated to improving infant mortality rates. The organization “seeks to promote racial equity and eliminate disparities in birth outcomes between whites of people of color in Kent County,” according to their website.

The report by Michigan League for Public Policy found that while infant death rates overall have dropped in the last year in Michigan, African American infants are twice as likely to die before turning age 1 as white infants. While the report found there has been an increase in smoking by mothers of color, Strong Beginnings Program Director Vander Meulen says the problem isn’t smoking, it’s systemic.

“What accounts for this disparity between black and white infant deaths is the racism that is so pervasive in our society,” Vander Meulen said. “Racism and discrimination that contributes to chronic lifelong stress that results in physical changes, that results in premature births, and ultimately infant death.”

Strong Beginnings is working to lower the number of infant deaths through a number of services they provide. In addition, Strong Beginnings works to educate and encourage women during their pregnancies and for the first couple of years of the baby’s life. And Vander Meulen says, it’s working.

“Among the women in our program, our rate for all of those measures infant mortality, low birth rate and prematurity are somewhere probably between 30 to 50 percent lower than the comparable populations in Kent County and Grand Rapids. So we are seeing significant improvements in birth outcomes amoung our participants,” she said.

The report also found that the Hispanic community’s infant mortality rate has risen by 15 percent. Vander Meulen said that the stress of immigration has played a significant part.