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Press Release

Press Release # 012-08
Wednesday, February 20, 2008

CONTACT: (212) 788-5290
Jessica Scaperotti:
Sara Markt:
Celina De Leon:


Poverty, Race, and Mother’s Health before Pregnancy All Play a Role in Baby’s Health

NEW YORK CITY – February 20, 2008 – The Health Department and Brooklyn community leaders today joined author and TV producer Tonya Lewis Lee to raise awareness of infant death – and help new parents prevent it. Addressing residents at Brooklyn’s Concord Baptist Church, Lee, who is married to filmmaker Spike Lee, discussed the need to safeguard women’s and infants’ health by bettering social conditions, improving access to prenatal care, promoting breastfeeding, and making healthy eating easier. Lee is working with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health on a national initiative called A Healthy Baby Begins with You.

“I am thrilled to be a part of this national dialogue to end preventable infant mortality in this country,” said Lee. “We have been complacent for too long about the number of African-American women who have experienced the death of their children from sudden infant death syndrome, premature birth and low birth weight. It’s also extremely important that I’m here in Brooklyn, given the strong ties that unite my husband and me to this community. If we can help across the country, we can certainly help here at home.”

Poverty and race are the most influential factors in infant deaths, partly because they affect women’s chances of staying healthy themselves. Illness and death are more common in babies whose mothers smoke, use alcohol or drugs, or are obese, have diabetes, or have high blood pressure before or during pregnancy. Data from the New York City Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System suggest that all of these risk factors are common among NYC women – especially black and Latina women. Citywide, some 40% of the women who gave birth in 2004 and 2005 were overweight or obese before they became pregnant, and one in 10 developed diabetes during pregnancy – a condition known as gestational diabetes.

These problems are even more common in low-income neighborhoods, and children are dying as a result. Brooklyn’s infant mortality rate was on par with the city average last year. But low-income Central Brooklyn neighborhoods, along with eastern Jamaica in Queens, have had higher infant death rates than any other NYC neighborhood over the past three years. A complete list of infant mortality by neighborhood is available online at

Like income, race and ethnicity strongly affect a child’s chances of survival in New York City. In 2006, Black and Puerto Rican babies died at more than twice the rate of Whites and Asian-Pacific Islanders. While the reasons are not well understood, poverty cannot explain the entire disparity. Some studies suggest that the stress of living with racial discrimination may have health consequences for certain minorities, even in the absence of poverty.

“Infant death rates remain highest in black communities – a telling sign of how race and poverty are at play,” said Dr. Mary T. Bassett, Deputy Commissioner of the Health Department’s Bureau of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. “There is no single solution to reducing infant deaths and disparities in infant mortality. In addition to our targeted efforts for women and infants, we need to reduce poverty and discrimination, and improve access to quality health care and healthy food before, during, and after pregnancy.”

Leaders today also discussed the importance of breast feeding, which helps women’s bodies recover from pregnancy and labor and helps babies stay healthy and strong. The Health Department’s Brooklyn District Public Health Office kicked off its campaign to promote supportive environments for breast feeding. Working with local businesses and organizations, the Health Department is aiming to make Brooklyn a breast-feeding friendly borough.

“Community ownership of maternal and child health issues is essential to ensuring we have healthy mothers and babies,” said Yvonne Graham, assistant to the Brooklyn Borough President. “These issues have been at the heart of the Caribbean Women’s Health Association mission since its inception. I am proud to stand here today with the city, our faith-based leaders, and the women of Brooklyn to speak up and to work together to reduce the stigma around breastfeeding – one important step in improving Brooklyn moms and babies’ health.”

“The March of Dimes is working to assure that all babies have an equal opportunity for a healthy start in life,” said Dr. Diane Ashton, the organization’s deputy medical director. “To achieve this goal, we need help to spread the word, to educate, and to call for resources and programs that can make a difference for the health of our black communities and for the nation as a whole.”

What Women Can Do To Stay Healthy and Have a Healthy Baby

  • Plan your pregnancy. Unplanned pregnancies are more likely to result in low birth weight, infant death, and poor development.
  • Have a regular doctor or health care provider to help you stay healthy before you become pregnant.
  • If you smoke or use alcohol or drugs, get help to stop.
  • Maintain a healthy weight and eat a healthy diet.
  • Keep chronic illnesses like diabetes and high blood pressure under control.
  • Get help if you are depressed, overly stressed, or abused.
  • Take folic acid (in most multi-vitamins), which helps prevent serious birth defects.
  • Breastfeed your baby. Breastfeeding lowers the risk of acquiring infectious diseases that put a new baby at risk of death. Breastfeeding also lowers the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

To find out about free or low cost health care services, including family planning, call 311 and ask for the Women’s Healthline.

While working to improve everyone’s access to healthy food and physical activity, the Health Department is also taking direct steps to reduce infant mortality and address its disparate impact. These efforts, bolstered by improvements in medical care, are making a difference. Over the past decade, the infant mortality rate has decreased by 25% among black New Yorkers. Teen pregnancy rates have declined by 18% since 2000, indicating steady progress in improving the health of black mothers and babies. New York City’s efforts include:

  • Expanding the Nurse-Family Partnership, with the aim of serving more than 2,000 families by the end of 2008. NFP is a nurse home-visiting program for low-income, first-time mothers. Nurses interact regularly with women from the time they are pregnant through their child’s second birthday to help them take the steps needed to keep themselves and their babies healthy, and to help break the cycle of poverty many families face.
  • Offering a single home visit to all families with new babies in parts of Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. Through this Newborn Home Visiting Program, Health Department workers assess the safety of the home environment, educate new parents about breastfeeding and safe sleep, and help families gain access to medical care and social services.
  • Promoting breastfeeding through the Breastfeeding Initiative. Most recently, the Health Department and the Health and Hospitals Corporation launched a comprehensive breastfeeding-promotion program to encourage breastfeeding and eliminate formula giveaways in public hospitals.
  • Providing portable cribs and safe-sleep education to families served by the NFP and the Newborn Home Visiting Program through the New York City Safe Sleep Initiative.
  • Working with 40 community-based organizations, with funding from the City Council, to reduce infant mortality through health education workshops, outreach, referral services, case management, peer education and other activities.
  • Working with health care providers, including school-based health centers through our Healthy Teens Initiative, to increase access to sexual and reproductive health services for teens, starting in the South Bronx, and expanding throughout New York City over the next three years.

A complete biography for Tonya Lewis Lee is available at