The infant mortality rate in some Chattanooga neighborhoods compares to that of some developing nations, so BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee is funding an initiative to save Hamilton County babies.
"To just say that Tennessee's infant mortality statistics are alarming would be an understatement," said Calvin Anderson, BlueCross' vice president of federal and community relations. "Here in Tennessee, in America, with our advanced medicine and high social economic development, we're at Third World-country levels when it comes to the health of our children."
Anderson was among dozens of people who cheered Thursday when BlueCross BlueShield announced a $1.7 million grant to expand the Blues Project to Hamilton County. The infant mortality prevention initiative is administered by the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
MEMPHIS BLUES PROJECT
Of the more than 800 women enrolled in the program in Memphis, only 9 percent had low birth weight babies between 2005 and 2009, compared with 18.6 percent of the 758 women at the same clinics who weren't enrolled, she said. Prematurity rates were 7.4 for participants and 19.7 for nonparticipants.
Social issues such as poverty and educational disparities underlie many of the more direct causes of infant mortality, such as lack of prenatal care, domestic violence and substance abuse.
Source: Newspaper archives
The program, which has operated in Memphis, will be implemented in Hamilton County in October.
Program providers will work with the Dodson Avenue and Erlanger health centers to enroll 500 women who are up to 29 weeks pregnant and have high risk factors for infant mortality.
The program in Memphis has demonstrated that mothers who participate are less likely to deliver premature or underweight babies, said Kimberly Lamar, assistant professor at the UT Health Science Center. Their children also are less likely to die from homicide, abuse or neglect, she said.
Mothers who go through the program are more likely to improve their education and economic status, she said.
"Winston Churchill once said there is no finer investment in a community than putting milk into babies," Anderson said. "I'd like to add there is no finer investment in Tennessee than keeping our infants healthy."
Tennessee's infant mortality rate ranks 47th of the 50 states. Hamilton County has one of the three highest infant mortality rates in the state, with more than 11 deaths for every 1,000 births. In Alton Park and St. Elmo, the rate is 23 deaths for every 1,000 births.
Laquanta Ellis, a mother of five who was in the Memphis program, said the Blues Project gave her peace of mind during her fourth pregnancy and motivated her to get her GED and a full-time job.
"I just wanted to do better," she said.
Participants in the program helped her get milk and diapers for her new child and encouraged her to complete her education.
"My self-esteem used to be low," she said. "It's very high now."
State Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, cried Thursday after sitting through the BlueCross presentation. She said she is happy for Ms. Ellis' success but still concerned that so many other mothers and their children are at risk.
"Thank God for this step today because this is one more chance to try to change," she said. "It cannot be like this. Our babies cannot die in infancy. We have got to stem the tide."