Newborn babies more likely to die in certain Houston-area zip codes


by Jeremy Rogalski

Posted on June 7, 2013 at 12:35 AM

Updated Friday, Jun 7 at 12:36 AM

HOUSTON—For Yurlonda Williams, the simple joy that comes from playing with her niece triggers something else: memories.

Painful ones, when she had twin sons born severely premature and weighing a fragile pound and a half a piece.

“They could barely fit in your hand,” Williams said. “His little legs was (sic) hanging in my hand,” she said.

Today, one of the boys, Devonte, is thriving and strong. But his brother struggled through each of the 11 short days of his life.

“It was just hard looking at him, and the guilt of myself, you know, just knowing and thinking ‘what could I have done to prevent this?’”

The answer is quite intriguing if you ask health researchers. Williams has something in common with the many other women who’ve had newborns—a number. But it’s not their age, or their weight, heart rate or other health factors that come to mind.

It’s their address.

“Where one lives actually matters,” said Dr. Margo Hilliard Alford with the Harris Health System. She and a team study birth outcomes, and their latest findings are telling.

Harris County has more than 300 ZIP codes in all. But the highest number of preterm births and the most infant deaths occur in the very same neighborhoods: Settegast in Northeast Houston, Sunnyside in Southeast Houston, and the area just Northeast of Highway 288 and Beltway 8.

These are also the poorest of poor areas, with not as many doctors and clinics and fewer transportation options to get to them.

They’re also areas with no easy access to grocery stores. That can mean poor nutrition for would-be moms, which in turn poses more risks for the baby.

“It bothers me, it has always bothered me,” Dr. Alford said. “These are the communities that need the pre-natal care the worst.”

But it turns out that they’re also the ones that are getting it less and less.

According to Dr. Alford’s study, since 2005, the amount of would-be moms receiving prenatal care has steadily declined.

So the Harris Health System is tackling the issue head on by going straight into neighborhoods, to reach and teach those who need it most.

The program is called IMPACT, and it has certainly made one on Yurlonda Williams and her sister Olivia, who both have joined.

“I didn’t know then how much I know now,” Yurlonda Williams said.

“Go ahead and get the resources you need now,” added Olivia Williams.

“Everything that you do counts, everything that you do makes a difference,” Olivia Williams said.

But funding for IMPACT may be running out. The Texas Department of State Health Services Healthy Babies initiative awarded a grant in December 2011 that expires in August. Dr. Hilliard Alford’s team hopes to pursue additional funding from local sources, or foundations to continue the program.