Lisa Peyton-Caire

Lisa Peyton-Caire, founder and president of the Foundation for Black Women's Wellness in Madison, speaks Thursday at a press conference announcing a nine-month project to gather input from black women and others about Dane County's high rates of infant mortality and low birth weight among black babies.

Up to 250 black women of childbearing age in Dane County, along with some black men, will be asked to help identify causes and solutions to high rates of low-birth-weight babies and infant mortality among blacks.

In a new effort targeting a longstanding problem, health care systems and other groups have picked the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness, a Madison nonprofit, to lead a nine-month project aimed at better understanding the complex factors behind the poor birth outcomes.

The project, which includes a May 5 forum for black women at the Urban League of Greater Madison, will “shape and define sustainable and systemic solutions that improve the health and quality of life of black women,” said Lisa Peyton-Caire, founder and president of the foundation.

“These processes have to be informed by us first if they are to be effective and sustainable,” Peyton-Caire said.

The county’s rate of infant mortality, or babies dying before their first birthday, has been three times higher for blacks than for whites in recent years.

It’s a problem found throughout Wisconsin, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in January that the state had the highest black infant mortality rate in the country. In 2013-2015, for every 1,000 black babies born in the state, 14.28 died, three times the rate for white babies.

A key factor, health officials say, is low birth weight — 5 pounds, 8 ounces or less — which in Dane County has been twice as common for blacks as for whites for many years.

‘Structural racism’

Likely contributors are inadequate housing, food insecurity and income inequity, which can lead to chronic stress, said Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison and Dane County.

“We know that black mothers are more likely than white mothers to face social and economic challenges that contribute to poor pregnancy and birth outcomes,” Heinrich said. “They’re often the result of discrimination and structural racism.”

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The new project follows several related efforts in recent years. In 2011, the health department started a fetal infant mortality review process, in which a committee studies the details of each infant death.

A safe sleep campaign launched in 2014 has advised parents to put babies to sleep on their backs, in their own, firm beds, free of loose objects. The same year, UW Health started Centering Pregnancy, a program offering group prenatal visits in an effort to reduce preterm births.

The health department expanded its nurse-family partnership program, in which nurses routinely visit the homes of vulnerable women pregnant with their first child.

With poor birth outcomes for black women still relatively high, the new project will seek input from 250 black women ages 18 to 45, along with some black men and black teens of both genders, Peyton-Caire said.

Group discussions will address education, wages, workplace opportunities, economic development, healthy food access and “systemic racism and inequalities that we absorb even down to the cellular level,” she said.

The program will mostly involve black women, but “this is a responsibility that we all share,” Peyton-Caire said. “It’s not a black women or black community issue. It’s a community issue.”

The effort is also led by EQT by Design, run by Madison consultant Annette Miller.

The project is sponsored by the Dane County Health Council, which includes Madison’s four main health systems — SSM Health, UnityPoint Health-Meriter, UW Health and Group Health Cooperative of South Central Wisconsin.

The council also includes the health department, United Way of Dane County, Access Community Health Centers and the Madison School District.

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