Infant mortality higher among African Americans in Alameda County

Rocking her 2-year-old son Gabriel back to sleep, Jennifer Featherstone took a moment to comfort her baby boy even though she would be the one needing comforting. 

She was about to share the traumatic loss of her baby girl, publicly for the first time.

“Emily is not drinking her bottle, she has a really high pitched squeal type cry and I heard her through the phone and I said take her immediately to Children’s Hospital Oakland,” said Featherstone.

Her journey to motherhood was never easy. Jennifer and her husband already had one son named Aaron who was born premature.

When they decided to grow their family, it nearly ended her own life.

“I was very sick. I actually contracted sepsis during the pregnancy where I was hospitalized at Alta Bates for some time,” said Featherstone. 

She ended up delivering her daughter Emily at 35 weeks, but at four weeks old, Emily contracted meningitis.

“Come to find out she had Group B Strep meningitis which is something they test pregnant women for but because I had her somewhat prematurely I was not tested so I did not know I was a carrier,” she said. 

Jennifer says Emily went into a coma and eventually died. 

What happened to Jennifer and her daughter isn't rare.

“The research says preterm birth is the main driver for infant mortality,” said Tanisha Payton with Parent Voices Oakland. 

According to the Alameda County Public Health Department, between 2013 and 2017, infant mortality among African Americans is 8.7 per 1,000 live births. By comparison, the number for whites is 3 infant deaths per 1,000 live births, 4.6 for Hispanic/Latinos, and 1.9 for the Asian population.

In Alameda County as a whole, there are 3.7 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared to 4.4 in the state. 

Payton says the increase is attributed to stress related to racism and socioeconomic factors.

”If you are housing unstable, if you are food insecure, if you have to choose between paying childcare or your rent there’s so many factors in being a parent and being a mother,” said Payton.  

Payton says it’s time to shift the narrative and with the help of women like Jennifer these issues can be brought to light.

“Forcing this into a public conversation will definitely help change the tide, get policy changes that are necessary for black women and black babies to survive,” she said. 

“If I can provide any hope or encouragement through my story then I did my job,” said Featherstone.

Featherstone went on to have another child named Gabriel. It was a risk she is thankful she took.

Nationally, African American women are also 3-4 times more likely to die than white women, during or after pregnancy. It’s a startling statistic leaders like Senator Kamala Harris are working to address. She just reintroduced a bill that creates grant programs to make sure that women, specifically women of color, have access to culturally competent maternal care to help reduce mortality. For more information on the bill, click here