BU Today

Science & Tech

Birth weight and race

Public health professionals tackle troubling data at SPH conference

Public health data in Massachusetts reveal a surprising disparity: black women in the Commonwealth are more than three times more likely to give birth to babies with low birth weight than white women. These infants are at greater risk of death, developmental disorders, and health problems.

“Despite the fact that there is extensive access to prenatal care today, data show that African-American women are still more likely to have low birth weight babies than white women, even when they are better educated,” says Deborah Allen, an associate professor of maternal and child health at the School of Public Health. Allen is one of several organizers of a conference, on Monday, January 30, at which more than 80 public health professionals from around New England will gather at the school to discuss the possible causes of this disparity and what to do about it.

For the third year in a row, the 2003 birth data for Massachusetts (the most recent data available) showed that black babies accounted for the highest percentage of very low birth weight babies, those born weighing less than 2.5 pounds. Low birth weight is considered to be weight of less than 5.5 pounds. Of the state’s 2003 births, 4.1 white babies per thousand had a low birth weight, compared to 12.7 black babies per thousand in the same category.

“The difference,” says Allen, “is overwhelming.”

Monday’s conference is expected to include more than 15 participants from each of the six New England states, including representatives from departments of public health, from advocates such as the March of Dimes, and from health-care consumer organizations. The SPH department of maternal and child health uses federal training grants to present its academic data to groups such as these and to try to find the best way to address the issue.

The conference, The Impact of Inequality on Birth Outcomes: From Analysis to Action, is not open to the public. Keynote speaker Michael Lu, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, will be joined by James Collins, an associate professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Medical School’s division of neonatology, Children’s Memorial Hospital.

Researchers who will report findings at the conference have concluded that racism and health disparities take a toll on the health of women over their lifetime, possibly affecting the birth weights of their babies.

“Some issues here are very profound,” Allen says. “An African-American college graduate is probably doing the right things, eating the right things, but according to these outcomes, is still more likely to have a low birth weight baby who doesn’t survive.”

After hearing presentations by the researchers, conference participants will spend the afternoon considering what these findings mean for the populations within their states and begin to consider actions to combat the trends.

“These leaders are going to be asking the question, ‘Does this apply to our state? And if so, how does it play out? What more do we need to know and what might we do about it?’ ” Allen says.

Sharon Britton, School of Public Health communications director, contributed to this report.