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Birth workers in Kansas are addressing the state's high rate of infant mortality

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Kansas has one of the highest rates of infant mortality in the U.S. And for Black babies, the picture is especially dire. They're over 3 1/2 times more likely to die before their first birthday than white babies. Rose Conlon of member station KMUW and the Kansas News Service reports on what some birth workers are doing to address that.

ROSE CONLON, BYLINE: Peggy Jones-Foxx knows what it takes to raise a baby.

PEGGY JONES-FOXX: Hardest work I've ever done.

CONLON: In a spare room at the Dellrose United Methodist Church in Wichita, she's teaching young pregnant women about that work.

JONES-FOXX: All right. We're going to go ahead and get started.

CONLON: Today's lesson is about how to stay healthy during pregnancy. Before they go to a doctor's checkup, she tells them to write down their questions ahead of time and insist that they get answers.

JONES-FOXX: Sometimes that can be pretty intimidating because we're all a little shy when it comes to professionals. So we're going to talk about that. But before we do that, we're going to have a pop quiz.

CONLON: Jones-Foxx is the president of the Wichita Black Nurses Association. A few months ago, researchers at the Center for Research for Infant and Birth Survival asked her to help teach these classes after new data showed Black infant mortality in Kansas surged 58% in 2020. Now, 17 Black babies out of every thousand die before their first birthday in the state, over 3 1/2 times the rate for white babies. There are still big questions about what exactly happened, but the pandemic looms large. Initial research has linked the COVID-19 virus to pregnancy complications. And experts point to job loss and other sources of stress as potential factors. Sharla Smith, a University of Kansas professor who directs the Kansas Birth Equity Network, says Black people experienced both at higher rates.

SHARLA SMITH: A lot of this is just contributed to the stress on the Black body.

CONLON: While the leading cause of white and Hispanic infant death is birth defects, for Black babies, it's complications from being born too early and underweight. Smith says premature births can reflect maternal health disparities that exist long before pregnancy. She also says research shows doctors are less likely to diagnose Black women with endometriosis or refer them for cardiac treatment and are more likely to ignore their pain.

SMITH: Black women are just not listened to, so when they're seeking care, there's a lot of disparities in access to quality health care within our state.

CONLON: Birth experts say reducing Black infant mortality means taking a wide look at all of the social, environmental and economic factors that contribute to it. That's exactly what Sapphire Garcia-Lies is trying to do with the Kansas Birth Justice Society, a few miles away in north Wichita. She founded the nonprofit in 2020 to reduce deaths among Black, Latino and Native American moms and babies.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOORBELL)

CONLON: Inside the center, there's a community fridge, a meditation area and a room stacked floor to ceiling with free diapers, baby clothes and strollers.

SAPPHIRE GARCIA-LIES: This is our lactation clinic. It's called the Milky Way Lactation Lounge.

CONLON: The group is recruiting and training lactation consultants of color, a first for Wichita. They help the families they serve who are less likely to breastfeed continue to, despite big hurdles like having to go back to work as soon as two weeks after giving birth.

GARCIA-LIES: Because the research tells us that if family exclusively breastfeeds the baby, that they have a higher chance of making it to see their first birthday.

CONLON: Their staff of eight doulas will give pregnancy support to around 75 families this year. Doulas can advocate for patients during doctors visits and make sure they aren't pressured into things like labor induction and C-sections in the delivery room. It's an issue close to Garcia-Lies' heart. Several years ago, she lost her second daughter to miscarriage after, she says, a doctor brushed aside concerns she raised about the pregnancy.

GARCIA-LIES: By the time I went for a second opinion, she had passed away, and I was full term. You know, we were days from her due date.

CONLON: Now she works to make sure fewer Black and brown families have to go through that heartbreak. For NPR News, I'm Rose Conlon in Wichita. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rose Conlon