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CRENSHAW : Group Battles Blacks' Infant Death Rate

October 04, 1992|ERIN J. AUBRY

Two years ago, registered nurse Sylvia McLymont had just retired from the county and was looking forward to unplanned, lazy days. Then she got a call.

"At first, when this new organization said it was looking for a research assistant, I thought, 'Oh, no!' " said McLymont, who worked in obstetrics and gynecology for 38 years. "But when I found out what it was all about, helping to inform African-American women, I couldn't help being concerned."

To combat an alarming infant mortality rate among blacks in Los Angeles County--the highest in California--Great Beginnings for Black Babies attempts to drive home the importance of prenatal care in South and Southwest Los Angeles, Compton, Inglewood and Pasadena.

Launched in 1990 by the county Department of Health Services, Great Beginnings seeks to reverse what co-founder Dr. Virginia Hunter calls a horrifying trend.

"In 1988, the black infant mortality rate was 21.1 per 1,000, up 30% from 1987," said Hunter, who is president of the Council of Black Nurses and a professor of nursing at Cal State L.A. "For the general population the same year, it was 9.6 per 1,000. I am outraged about the disparity. The deaths are preventable if we make it a priority."

Statewide, the mortality rate for infants of all races was 7.9 per 1,000. The rate for black infants in California was more than double that, at 16.7 per 1,000.

Zola Jones, a public health nurse and consultant with the county's Maternal Health and Family Planning Programs Office, said the pervasive lack of prenatal care among blacks transcends economic status and geography.

From a small office in the old Crenshaw Plaza, Great Beginnings' is fighting back through media campaigns. Its first effort, a series of billboards warning against the dangers of taking drugs during pregnancy, received widespread attention.

The ads, depicting a scrawny, crack-addicted newborn full of life-support tubes, soberly proclaimed: "He couldn't take the hit." It evoked strong reactions, particularly from residents of Baldwin Hills, Jones said.

"They said the billboard on Crenshaw was giving them a bad name," she said, shaking her head. "Their attitude was, 'The message is fine but take it to Watts.' "

Public relations director Jeanne Taylor said the ads had to compete with strong images put out by tobacco and alcohol companies. "Smoking and drinking are also primary causes for poor infant health and low birth weight," Taylor said, "so we had to get serious."

Although hypertension, diabetes and poor diet also contribute to high infant mortality, Jones said, one of the biggest factors is being misinformed. A recent survey by Great Beginnings of 300 African-American women found that only four in 10 know what prenatal care is.

"A lot of black women believe if they deliver at a private hospital, they'll have a healthy baby. Ironically, they get no better care at, say, Cedars Sinai, in the emergency room than they would get at a county hospital," she said.

But for all its ambitious work, Great Beginnings' funding faces an abrupt ending next June, when its county funding is due to end.

Taylor said the group is trying to rally support and raise money in the communities it serves. "I can't go back to doing PR in an office," she said. "This is so much more rewarding. How often do you get to work on something you like and make a difference at the same time?"

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