FLORIDA — Why are Black infants dying at such a high rate in Florida and what’s being done about it?  We talked to parents and experts to find out more and we looked at a study that says the race of the doctor plays a role in the baby’s survival.

What You Need To Know

  • Study shows Black infants are dying at a higher rate than other races

  • Experts say the kind of care a mother receives plays a role

  • Study found that 11.26 Black infants died in 2018 for every 1,000 births

  • More Justice For All stories

First time mom Jadacy Shepherd and her husband Eddie Engram lost a child last year so they know the hurt that comes with the death of a child.

“April 2nd I gave birth to little Eddie at 3:29. And it was so hard. At first they asked me did I want to hold him. I said no at first just because I couldn’t take it. No one that close to me has ever passed away other than my grandmother. I never experienced death like that so it took a toll on me,” Shepherd said.

She gave birth to a stillborn baby 30 weeks into her pregnancy.

“When we did the ultrasound I just seen my baby there. I had absolutely no amniotic fluid at all. Mind you my water never broke. I never felt any fluids, we don’t know what happened,” she said. “When I held him I just remembered just staring off, just kind of in a daze, like I can’t believe this is happening to me and my baby is here but he’s not alive. It’s just a feeling you’ll never forget.”

Dealing with the pain of losing a child made Shepherd and her husband look a little deeper, and they were surprised by what they found. 

“I had no idea this was going on with our black babies at all. And then when I went to seek help and to see the concern with women of color just having these dead children, it literally broke my heart,” Shepherd said.

Shepherd researched the mortality rates for black infants. The Florida Health Department numbers show a slight decrease of black babies dying over an 11 year period. But those numbers are still significantly high. According to the study, for every 1,000 births, 11.26 black babies died in 2018. That same year, for every 1,000 births, 4.29 white infants died.

It’s a deeply troubling statistic that organizations like the Healthy Start Coalition are working to eliminate. 

“Our goal is to help infants reach their first birthday. That’s a milestone for a lot of black people. And so we have to continue on that path,” Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, Healthy Start Coalition Project Manager, Kimberly Brown Williams said. 

So what’s the cause? Why are more black babies dying than any other race?

This health department study lists five of the leading causes of death for newborns. Florida’s Black infants were more likely to die due to gestation and low birth weight while White infants were more likely to die due to congenital malformations, deformations and chromosomal abnormalities.

But Neonatologist Dr. Terri Ashmeade said there’s more to it than that.

“I think infant mortality is really just the tip of the iceberg. I like to think about it and talk about it as adverse pregnancy outcomes,” she said.

She says it starts with the care the mother receives.

“It’s not like a black baby is more likely to have a complication associated with prematurity than a white baby based on the fact that they’re black. That’s not really the case. They’re at higher risk of being premature in the first place because of the impact of racism on their mother’s physiology,” Dr. Ashmeade said.

That’s why Carole Alexander’s Next Stepp Center located in a predominantly Black St. Petersburg neighborhood, is working to empower mothers to advocate for themselves and their children.

“If they are at a doctor’s office or some provider to be able to say well I expressed this but I don’t think I received an answer that satisfies me or that speaks to what my situation is. How does this impact my pregnancy? What are some of the things I can expect if this continues?” Alexander said.

And while Alexander and Brown-Williams both say the consensus among black expectant mothers is that they don’t feel heard by their doctors, a new study proposes a new factor. The study conducted by professors at George Mason University and Harvard found that black infants treated by white physicians were more likely to die compared to being treated by a black doctor. 

Dr. Brad Greenwood is an Associate Professor at George Mason University and he worked on this study. He explained some of the numbers they found. 

“So if you look in just the cross tabs, absent of any controls. So the raw mortality rate for a white newborn in the sample is 289 per one hundred thousand births. For black newborns it's 784 per hundred thousand. So that’s roughly three times as many,” Greenwood said. “So if we just take that in patient mortality for white newborns and apply them to every child that’s born in the United States, you’re saving roughly 2800 lives.”

The study examined infant deaths in Florida from 1992 to 2015. Greenwood said there were some surprising findings in their research like the lack of information about the impact to the Hispanic community.

Greenwood said he’s heard some negative comments about the study but he’s heard some promising ones too. “We hear or I’ve heard a fair number of times that oh, this just means that races should treat each other. And it’s like no, that’s absurd. And the idea we’re going to have a Jim Crow era of medicine, as a result of this is absurd,” Greenwood said. “Our goal is not to vilify physicians in any way, the first step to solving a problem is acknowledging there is a problem and if we don’t do that, we’re never going to move forward on it.”

He said the medical school he presented the findings to have now started working on inclusion programs and racial bias training. 

Those are the kinds of steps Dr. Ashmeade said will make a real difference when it comes to saving lives. “I really believe that all providers want to provide the best care to patients regardless of the patients race. They want to see great outcomes. But we need to diversify our care teams and we need to train our care teams about race, the impact of race on outcomes and unconscious bias,” she said.