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The Investigators: Babies are born underweight in these two Mississippi counties

Published: Mar. 16, 2021 at 4:56 PM EDT
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(Editor’s note: This story was originally published March 11, 2021 at 10:30 PM CST - Updated March 12 at 6:36 AM on wmcactionnews5.com)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (Great Health Divide) - An alarming trend plagues the Mississippi Delta where babies are more likely to be born underweight.

Low birthweight can lead to long-term health issues, even death.

The low birthweight rates in Quitman and Coahoma counties are particularly high; more than double the national average.

The national rate of low birthweight is 8.3%, according to data provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

In Quitman County, it’s 17.6%. In Coahoma County, it’s 17.1%.

24-year-old Marissa Bowens lives in Quitman County. We spoke to her days before she was set to give birth to her first child, a boy, about the plans she has for the kind of mother she wants to become.

“I think about that all the time, actually. Ever since I’ve been pregnant,” said Bowens. “I’m gonna love him unconditionally. Give him everything I can give him that I didn’t experience, or the things I did experience and more.”

Preparing for motherhood isn’t easy for Bowens in Quitman County.

There is neither a grocery store with fresh produce nor a women’s health physician in the entire county.

“We have to travel about 20 miles to the next city,” she said.

Bowens drives to neighboring Coahoma county to grocery shop and see her doctor at The Woman’s Clinic in Clarksdale.

The Women’s Clinic is the only OB GYN clinic in the region, according to one its physicians, Dr. Erica Balthrop.

According to Dr. Balthrop, patients come from miles away to receive prenatal care at her office.

She says the distance some patients must travel to get fresh food and the critical care they need during pregnancy contributes to the low birthweight rate.

Babies born under 5 pounds, 8 ounces are more likely to have health issues like breathing problems, brain bleeds and jaundice.

Some even die.

“It’s difficult to deal with. It’s difficult to accept,” said Dr. Balthrop.

Balthrop said the low birthweight rate is even higher in her clinic; that up to 40% of her patients are at risk of having small babies.

One issue, she says, is the long journey expecting mothers must take for doctor’s visits and fresh food.

“When a mom doesn’t have easy access to her doctor, what does that mean for her pregnancy?” Asked The Investigators.

“That means she’ll get no prenatal care,” said Dr. Balthrop. “Lots of preventable illnesses that can result in low-birth weight can be prevented if you have regular prenatal care, and early prenatal care.”

Illnesses that contribute to low birthweight include diabetes, obesity and hypertension, which according to the CDC, is more prevalent in this area.

“Why do you think those diseases more prevalent here?” Asked The Investigators.

“Our diets,” said Dr. Balthrop.

In Coahoma County where the clinic is located, there are doctors and grocery stores with fresh produce but rate of low birthweight is still high.

Balthrop says it comes down to education. She says some moms don’t know what healthy foods to eat.

Others smoke or use alcohol or drugs.

“Do you feel that you’re an educator as well as a medical provider?” Asked The Investigators.

“Definitely,” said Dr. Balthrop. “The educational piece streams down through the rest of the family as well because when you talk to her about alcohol and tobacco and foods to eat, and things that are better for you in terms of iron deficiency and things like that then she takes that back home.”

Access to healthy food, medical care and education are key and so is contraception.

Teen moms are more likely to have small babies, and many of Dr. Balthrop’s patients are young.

“Sometimes they don’t realize they’re pregnant until mid-second trimester, and that’s maybe 20 weeks,” she said. “By then, whatever habits you’ve had or didn’t have, then you’ve gone through half a pregnancy already.”

Teen moms are also more likely to give birth prematurely, which is a major contributor to low birthweight.

Mississippi’s preterm birth rate is 14.6%, earning the state an “F” rating by the March of Dimes, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing premature birth.

Dr. Balthrop says she does what she can to promote healthy pregnancies but moms have to want it, too.

“We can put it out there for them but then you’re also faced with those who just don’t want to do it,” she said. “But people, for the most part, are very grateful and they want to do better.”

Like Marissa Bowens, who wants to do better for herself and her son.

“I want him to do something with his life,” she said.

Bowens gave birth to a healthy baby boy on

There are resources for women in the Mississippi Delta region.

Aaron E. Henry Community Health Services provides medical and dental care at its Clarksdale location. It also provides mobile medical services, and contraception.

For more information on what services the March of Dimes provides in Mississippi, follow this link.

The Women’s Clinic in Clarksdale can be found at this link.

Great Health Divide is an initiative addressing health disparities in the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia funded in part by the Google News Initiative.

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