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A Week in Memphis
Higher Knowledge, Higher Service

The Higher Knowledge, Higher Service - First College to Community Health Outreach Week in Memphis got off to an emotional start at Shelby County's baby cemetery on a recent Sunday in May.

The Higher Knowledge, Higher Service - First College to Community Health Outreach Week in Memphis got off to an emotional start at Shelby County's baby cemetery on a recent Sunday in May.

Shelby County (Tenn.) Mayor A. C. Wharton and Tonya Lewis Lee, wife of filmmaker Spike Lee, urged the city to fight against infant mortality.

"I dream of the day when we will say, 'This place used to be a cemetery, but now it's a playground,'" the Memphis Post reported Wharton as saying. "Little babies could run on these hills, and fall and not even get hurt."

In 2006-2007, 402 babies died before reaching their first year in Shelby County and Wharton has said this is one of the issues that concern him most.

Health officials define the national infant mortality rate as the number of deaths per 1,000 live births. Within the African-American community the rate is 13 infant deaths per 1,000 live births compared to 6.5 infant deaths per 1,000 live births for non-Hispanic whites. In Shelby County, which includes Memphis, about 17 African-American babies died for every 1,000 born in 2004. In that same year, the number for whites was only about six.

Higher Knowledge, Higher Service - First College to Community Health Outreach Week."We need to take care of our babies and get them to their first birthday," Wharton said. "At St. Jude (Children's Research Hospital), they say no child should die in the dawn of life. I would like to erect a sign saying, 'In Shelby County, no child will die in the dawn of life.'"

Mayor Wharton said he is looking into putting together a team that will review infant mortality cases in the county to determine the cause of death and find out why black women, more than any other ethnicity, are far more likely to lose a child.

Memphis resident Katrina Thompson was there Sunday. She often visits the Shelby County Cemetery because it is the final resting place of her grandson. Her daughter gave birth at 22 weeks, and doctors expected the baby to only live five to six hours. Five-month-old Samarion Pollard passed away in February 2008.

"It's a year later, and it's still very emotional," Thompson told WMC-TV Channel 5 News. "We come out (here) very often, and it's very difficult. We pray, and we support each other through this process," Thompson told WPYT ABC24.

OMH's infant mortality awareness campaign focuses on preconception education. The idea is to train students at historically black colleges to become Preconception Peer Educators (PPEs), and then send them into communities with high infant death rates to connect with residents in their age group and younger.

On Monday, PPEs from colleges such as LeMoyne-Owen (in Memphis) and Spelman (in Atlanta) spoke to students at Carver High, Memphis Academy of Health Sciences and Southwind High. On Tuesday, selected students at the Memphis Academy of Health Sciences completed four hours of PPE training. Then on Wednesday, PPEs from Memphis and around the country canvassed neighborhoods near LeMoyne-Owen, an area known for a high number of infant mortalities.

"It's critical to have young people speak with other young people," Tonya Lewis Lee, national spokeswoman for the two-year-old Healthy Baby campaign, told the Memphis Post. "They know the language."

On Thursday, PPEs toured the neonatal intensive care unit at the Regional Medical Center at Memphis.

County Health Officer Dr. Kenneth Robinson told the Memphis Post that in 2005-2006 black infants were three times as likely as white infants to die in Memphis, with the highest infant mortality rate among the nation's 60 largest cities. Half of those babies had no prenatal care and three-fourths were born premature. The United States as whole does not fare much better, ranking among Third World countries in terms of infant mortality numbers.

On Sunday, at the cemetery, Lewis Lee told the Memphis Post that the city was circled on her map because of the high infant mortality rates. "If we can make a difference here, then we can anywhere."

"We realized that Memphis has the highest infant mortality rate among the nation's 60 largest cities. We thought it was fitting to come to Memphis and spend a week," said Lewis Lee, on Sunday. "It's important to me because it's the loss of life. I fortunately had two wonderful pregnancies and have had healthy kids grown into healthy teenagers. I feel that every woman should have the same experience. I know the loss of those children is a loss to all of us, the entire nation."

On Saturday, filmmaker and Academy Award nominee Spike Lee joined his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, at the "Healthy Livin', Healthy Lovin'" health fair for the general public at World Overcomers Outreach Ministries Church. The main focus of the fair, that included dozens of exhibitors, screenings and attracted more than 500 people, was on health, prenatal care and healthy babies. African-American women from General Electric Healthcare sent more than 350 baby items as gifts to the pregnant women and their families, and Carol's Daughter sent 300 gifts as incentives to the people who got tested for HIV.

Spike Lee, on a panel that included NBA player Elliott Perry and former NFL player Reggie Howard, spoke at the "men's corner,' a packed, men-only room on the responsibilities African-American men have to their families and community. There was counseling for HIV, and Lee sent all the men to get tested.

In the African-American community, seven out of 10 households are headed by a woman, the Memphis Post reported Lee as saying. "Out of 10 black families only three fathers are at home," he said. The lack of a father figure is a direct contributor to the negative behavior of young black men and it impacts the relationships girls will have with men as they grow up."

"Infant mortality is a marker about how well a nation is doing or how healthy a nation is and right now we are a pretty sick nation," WREG-TV News Channel 3 reported Tonya Lewis Lee as saying. "Infant mortality affects all African American women regardless of how much education you have or how much wealth. It is not simply an issue of poverty," she continued.

Spike Lee told local WREG-TV that as men, we've got to step up. "This thing is cutting across class and social status and how are we going to continue as a race if our babies are dying at the rate they are." Former NFL cornerback Reggie Howard added that "we need to start holding each other accountable." This was echoed by former NBA Memphis Grizzlies Point Guard, Elliot Perry: "The things we're talking about are controversial, but it's getting people thinking."

Gerald Richardson, 38, who like many of the men listening to the panel is already a father, said he is teaching his three daughters all the games and tricks he used as a younger man on girls himself. "Our girls are accepting any type of love any type of way," Richardson told the Memphis Post, saying fathers must teach their daughters to demand more from the men they become involved with, he said. "Our girls are the key to our men being successful."

Content Last Modified: 6/9/2009 3:32:00 PM
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