The U.S Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) launched a documentary on the work of student peer educators seeking to raise awareness of disparities in infant mortality rates that affect African-American communities. The students participate in the HHS "A Healthy Baby Begins with You" campaign, which involves community, civic and public health organizations.
The video follows the peer educators as they work with high-school and middle-school students, and in church and community venues, to teach people that healthy living is one of the interventions needed to reduce the community-wide prevalence of infant mortality.
"Preparing for a healthy pregnancy is a lifelong process," said OMH Assistant Deputy Director Dr. Garth Graham. "We want our peer educators to send that message to our youth. You can’t wait for pregnancy to start doing the right things. You need to start the day you are born."
Health officials define the national infant mortality rate as the number of deaths per 1,000 live births. Within the African-American community the rate is 13 infant deaths per 1,000 live births compared to 6.5 infant deaths per 1,000 live births for non-Hispanic whites.
"Despite improvements, disparities in infant mortality are chronic and persistent," said Dr. Howard Koh, HHS assistant secretary for health. "To help close the gap, we need to focus on everyday healthy living for kids long before they think about having kids of their own."
Tonya Lewis Lee, bestselling author, award-winning television producer and campaign spokesperson produced the video.
"I’m so proud of what these students are accomplishing and excited by the possibility that the work we are portraying in this documentary, and the attention we are calling to healthy living and preconception health, can help us accomplish real change in our community," said Ms. Lee. "We hope this video encourages more students, schools and communities to join the campaign."
An important feature of the campaign is its focus on boys and men as well as women and girls. "Boys and men need to be aware of their roles in a healthy community," said author and media commentator Jeff Johnson. "Fathers have to take the lead, but only the education of our young boys from a very early age will make a dent in the issues that we face. That’s why I’m happy to see the way this campaign involves young men as peer educators." The campaign was begun by the Office of Minority Health in 2007 with students and faculty mentors from historically black colleges and universities - Spelman College, Atlanta; Fisk University and Meharry Medical School, Nashville; Morgan State University, Baltimore - and from the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, Philadelphia. Students from Lane College and Le Moyne-Owens College in Tennessee also participate in the work shown in the video.
Much of the video was shot in Memphis, Tenn., during College to Community Week, a week of service organized by city and local partners together with OMH. In Shelby County, which includes Memphis, about 17 African-American babies died for every 1,000 born in 2004. In that same year, the number for whites was only about six.
"The issue of infant mortality is especially close to our hearts here in Memphis, where we own the unfortunate distinction of the country’s highest infant mortality rate," said A C Wharton, Mayor of Shelby County. "We applaud Tonya Lewis Lee and the Healthy Baby campaign for filming this documentary in our city and bringing awareness to an issue that affects our residents so disproportionately."