A NewPublicHealth Q&A: Tonya Lewis Lee on Infant Mortality Month

Sep 6, 2011, 6:43 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

September is Infant Mortality Awareness Month in the U.S. Infant mortality rates remain very high in minority communities, especially among African Americans:

  • African Americans have 2.4 times the infant mortality rate of non-Hispanic whites
  • African Americans are four times as likely to die as infants due to complications related to low birth weight compared to non-Hispanic white infants
  • African Americans have 1.9 times the sudden infant death syndrome mortality rate of non-Hispanic whites
  • African American mothers were 2.3 times more likely than non-Hispanic white mothers to begin prenatal care in the 3rd trimester, or not receive prenatal care at all

NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Tonya Lewis Lee, spokesperson on infant mortality for the Office of Minority Health in the U.S. department of Health and Human Services. Tonya Lee is a writer and producer who has written several children’s books, including one, Please Baby Please, with her husband, director Spike Lee. In 2009, Lewis Lee produced a documentary for the Office of Minority Health called “Crisis in the Crib: Saving Our Nation’s Babies.”

NewPublicHealth: How did you come to be the Office of Minority Health spokesman on infant mortality?

Tonya Lee: They approached me in 2007, because I had written a few children’s books and I had done some work on Nickelodeon and some work with Disney, and so they knew my passion for children. But I had not been aware of the high minority infant mortality rate.

NPH: But you quickly got up to speed and produced a documentary? What was the specific focus?

Tonya Lee: We followed our preconception peer educators. They are college students who are reaching out to their peers in college, to the outlying communities, and to younger students in high school and sometimes middle school. We went to Memphis, Tennessee with about 50 college students and literally as you see in the film, went knocking on doors and did what we could to raise awareness about infant mortality and preconception care as well.

NPH: What other efforts are key to reducing infant mortality in the African American community?

Tonya Lee: Men looking after themselves and their partners. A healthy man helps to create a healthy child. So first and foremost, I think men really have to understand their physiologic and biologic impact on the health of a child and take their own health seriously. We as a society need to get better at making sure men understand their role in the health of a child from preconception going forward. Sometimes in certain societies or certain sections of societies we can make men feel like the only thing they can contribute really is financially, and we need to find ways to bring men in so that they feel valued and important to the health of our children.

NPH: What other key messages need to get across?

Tonya Lee: That even very young girls need to think about the fact that what they eat now and whether they exercise now will affect my child born maybe 15 years later. We can never get that message out there enough about that connection.

NPH: Are the peer counselors making a difference?

Tonya Lee: Well, I think the peer counselors are fantastic and it’s a great way to get messaging to young people. It’s amazing to watch because the college students are so close to the age of these young people, they speak the same language, they listen to the same music, they come from the same neighborhoods, and so these kids will listen to them. Certainly more perhaps then they may listen to me as an old lady coming in there. Although, I will say one of the great rewards for me is having those young students from the Baltimore schools and from other high schools come up to me and say thank you so much for coming and for caring enough about us to show up.

I think we underestimate the power of going back into certain communities and talking to young people and letting them know that they matter tremendously to all of us.

NPH: How important is social media to get these messages across?

Tonya Lee: Honestly I don’t think we’ve used it enough, but I think that’s where kids are and you’ve got to meet them where they are. I think it’s one thing to give a boring long lecture or even present materials to kids that they can take home, which are impactful and do make a difference, but I think that to be YouTube, to be on Facebook, to be sending text messages with messages of healthy living is important and critical to get to these kids. That’s how they get their information these days.

NPH: What are you going to be doing in the next year?

Tonya Lee: We’re trying to partner with companies such as retailers where we get our campaign out there in another kind of way.Infant mortality is a difficult topic and people don’t necessarily want to hear a “sad message.” So we’re trying to figure out ways to get people to pay attention with an upbeat message. Often a lot of people think of it solely as an issue for a lower income society or for young girls, and I just want to be clear that infant mortality does affect all African American women regardless of their economic or educational background.

Stress is a big player in that and as African American women we have to also really think about stress levels because it does have an impact on our unborn children.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.