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By Rylee Sommers-Flanagan*
Recently, news sources and blog sites released a flurry of commentary and news articles on the results of a study by the New York State Health Department that indicate unusually high mortality rates for pregnant women in New York, particularly New York City. While the report declined to make a causal link, the article published in the New York Times mentioned not only that “death rates were highest in the Bronx and Brooklyn,” but that black women were “seven times as likely to die in pregnancy as white women.”
Unfortunately, these numbers don’t surprise us. Due to entrenched racial inequalities, health disparities between whites and people of color are visible in both treatment and outcomes. Care is often segregated and sometimes it is simply nonexistent.
Take, for example, Central Brooklyn, where 92% of the population is of color. Since 2003, three major medical providers – Caledonia Hospital, St. Mary’s Hospital and the Lyndon B. Johnson Health Center – have all closed. Also in the last seven years, Central Brooklyn has lost OB/GYN and NICU services at the Interfaith Medical Center, prenatal services at the Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center, as well as two WIC centers and four primary clinics, all now closed.
Losing these services won’t improve the disparate health fates of residents in Central Brooklyn. Predictably, the most dramatically medically underserved are also victims of the highest rates of maternal mortality and similarly elevated infant mortality rates – in Central Brooklyn, 8.75 infants die per 1000 live births compared to 2.1 deaths per 1000 in the Upper East Side.
Maternal and infant mortality are enough cause for concern, but decreased medical services have many more consequences. Another telling example is the remarkable gap in both rates and results of diabetes in Central Brooklyn as compared with the same in New York City as a whole. In 2008, 68% more people died from diabetes in Central Brooklyn than did in the rest of New York City. The story repeats itself to the tune of a variety of medical conditions. Hope seems foolhardy in this climate of hospital bankruptcies, pared budgets, and continuously diminished access to care.
But improvement is not impossible. One approach, embodied in the Infant Mortality Reduction Initiative (IMRI) has been successful in reducing infant mortality and increasing the number of women who receive pre- and post-natal care. By networking with existing programs and creating community partnerships, IMRI is generating progress. Yet, even as the report on maternal mortality illuminated the distance stretching ahead, the city has moved to severely reduce funding for IMRI and consequently participating organization like the Brooklyn Perinatal Network. There are few groups currently filling the gaping fissure left by multiple hospital closures and decreased services in the medically underserved regions of New York City. We need them all to be secure.
New York City is not the only player to blame in this game. According to The Lancet, 23 countries are on course for reducing maternal mortality as outlined in Millennium Development Goal 5, that’s 75% by 2015. The United States is not among them. A surprising set of countries – China, Egypt, Ecuador and Bolivia – are ahead of schedule.
Ultimately, policy is about priority; why aren’t mothers, infants and health a priority? Well, that’s our question for the City of New York, as well as the rest of these United States.
*Rylee Sommers-Flanagan is a Communications Intern and a student at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, where she is pursuing a degree in International Studies.
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