Local News

Durham Health Department Makes House Calls to Help Children Thrive

Posted February 9, 1999 6:00 a.m. EST

— It's a shocking statistic. Between 1996 and 1997, the number of infant deaths in Durham County jumped from 23 to 31 -- a 35 percent increase.

TheDurham County Health Departmentsays even one baby death is too many.

Health teams are trying to fix the problem by forming a partnership that takes solutions out of the clinics and into people's lives.

Doctors may not make house calls much anymore, but there are other health care workers who do, and they're saving lives in Durham.

A public health nurse and a nutritionist are on the front lines of a battle to reduce Durham County's infant mortality rate and they're working door-to-door.

Their first stop is at the home of 11-month-old Marquise Evans. Evans weighs only 15 pounds, and suffers from reflux, a condition that makes it difficult for him to keep down solid foods.

In the effort to reduce infant mortality, the field teams from the Durham County Health Department train mothers so they can help their babies survive and thrive.

Marquise's mom says the health department program is helping turn her son's life around.

"He used to just lay around and just be cranky," Shauntelle Evans says. "I thought 'I'm going to have the crankiest baby in the world.' But now, everything's on the up and up. He's actually happier."

"He crawls around, he's gaining weight, he's getting taller," she says. "He's actually moving in the direction I want him to move in so I don't have to be worried about him so much."

The health department says reducing infant mortality is among its highest priorities. Researchers have found low income and minority communities in Durham have nearly twice the infant mortality rate of other communities.

"We had up until 25 years ago a kind of a dual system of access here," explains Health Director Brian Letourneau. "We had a black hospital and a white hospital so that takes a long time to get over."

"What we're trying to do is to change the access habits and the access patterns," Letourneau says.

One change has been in access for Durham's growing hispanic community.

The field team also visits 11-month-old Jessica. A diaphragmatic hernia forces the little girl with the big eyes to be fed through a tube in her stomach.

Jessica's mother Ortensia doesn't speak English. But that's no problem for the field team.

"She's just saying that when children are born with a problem like Jessica has, it's really important that they get help," translates public health nurse Kim Bartholomew.

The field teams try to educate parents about nutrition, health care, and ways to prevent tragedies like Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Doctors and nurses at the Lincoln Community Health Center back it all up with treatment.

"We're partners with the people that we try to help," Letourneau says. "They have a great deal to do with the success or failure of what we do and if we're not partners with them, listening to their needs and responding to the things they see as challenges in their lives, then we're not going to be successful."

The outreach effort will continue as long as there are any preventable infant deaths.

Durham's infant mortality rate is a problem that needs to be fixed. But, in the Bull City, the fix is underway.

North Carolina's infant mortality rate is dropping, but we still have a lot of work to do.

The most recent numbers, from 1997, show that nine out of every 1,000 children born in North Carolina die before their first birthday. That's down 62 percent since 1970.

North Carolina still has more infant deaths than nearly anywhere else in the country.