American Indian and Alaska Native babies are dying at higher rates across the country than babies born to all other races. According to the Office of Minority Health, for every 1,000 American Indian and Alaskan Native live births, as many as 8.7 die before they can celebrate their first birthday. That’s more than 1.6 times the infant mortality rate of non-Hispanic whites.
“Native Generations” is a campaign launched by the Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI) and funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health to help raise awareness about infant mortality in urban American Indian communities and share health and prevention messages with providers and families. In addition to the 11-minute video available on their website and posted on Youtube, the organization provides free brochures and resource guides to Native health programs and interested individuals.
Shira Rutman, project coordinator for the UIHI, said it is the organization’s hope that the video helps people successfully connect with social support groups and community networks, including Native specific ones, especially during pregnancy and after birth.
Rutman said prior to developing the video and creating its corresponding resources, an UIHI team met with families from four cities— Seattle, Salt Lake City, Sacramento and Detroit—that have connections to the 33 UIHI offices located in 20 states. Group discussions revealed families strongly value raising newborns and children in a safe and stable environment, as well as having access to resources that incorporate Native cultures, such as those offered through the UIHI programs.
The families additionally discussed challenges to keeping babies healthy and safe, among them: lack of money, transportation issues, difficulty finding suitable childcare, and social isolation, especially for families in urban areas who are less connected to their tribes or Native-specific communities.
The Native Generations video shares stories of Native parents in Seattle and Detroit who found ways to embrace their culture and strengthen their connections to their tribal communities, in turn benefiting the health of their families. The video also features infant health risks and safety measures parents should take.
“We think it is important to tell people what can be done, rather then focusing on the bad news of infant mortality,” said Rutman. “We want to give people a sense of pride in what is happening in communities and opportunities for connection and how powerful that can be—[to let them know] that there is support available for them.”
The UIHI is also distributing the video to health providers and community organizations serving American Indians. The ultimate outcome, according to Rutman, would be a reduction in infant mortality rates; although that would be nearly impossible to measure she said.
The top five risk factors for infant deaths are: birth defects, sudden death syndrome (SIDS), pre-term and low birth weight, unintentional injuries and accidents, and pregnancy complications from the placenta and cord.
“Some of those causes of death are [consistent with] the general population,” Rutman said, “but the rate of SIDS is higher and is also higher on the list for our population [American Indians] than in other communities.”
Rutman said that the UIHI is excited about the Native Generations campaign. “If people go to the Native Generations website, they can see if there is an agency in their area that they haven’t already connected with. We are not a health care organization and would encourage people to seek out those services and specific recommendations by their health care providers,” she noted.
“The idea of staying connected to their culture and communities for the health of their families—and seeking out ways to do that—can be a challenge, but is critical from what the families are describing to us,” she added.
“The disparities in infant mortality and maternal and child health among American Indians and Alaskan Natives are striking,” said Acting Director of the Office of Minority Health J. Nadine Gracia said in a press release. “Efforts like Native Generations underscore that when culturally competent services are combined with awareness and education, we can make a difference in improving infant health and reducing disparities.”
The video, along with materials and other resources for families, can be viewed on the Native Generations webpage at: www.uihi.org/NativeGenerations.