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Grandmothers Campaign to Reduce Virginia Infant Mortality

Spreading the word to help save lives.

Summary:

• Virginia has the 30th highest infant mortality rate in the country
• AARP and the Department of Health are launching a Grandmothers Campaign for healthy babies
• Crank up the Internet social networks

Dona Dei is a grandmother with a mission: encouraging women to teach their daughters ways to reduce the number of babies who die in Virginia before their first birthday.

Dei plans to spread the word this fall through the Grandmothers Campaign, a project developed by the Virginia Department of Health and AARP Virginia. Its goal: cutting Virginia’s infant mortality rate, the 30th highest in the country, from 7.7 deaths to 7.0 deaths per 1,000 babies per year by the end of 2010. Two years ago, 839 Virginia infants died.

The project is being launched the second week of September in time for National Grandparents Day, Sept. 13.

“We’re getting information out to grandparents, churches and anyone who will listen to us,” said Dei, 60, a Loudoun County resident, grandmother of five and state director of program services for the Maryland-National Capital area chapter of the March of Dimes.

“The more a pregnant woman hears something, the more likely she will adopt the behavior. Healthier mothers make healthy babies, and this will reduce the infant mortality rate,” Dei said.

‘An unseen epidemic’

Karen Remley, M.D., Virginia’s health commissioner, called infant mortality “an unseen epidemic.” She said this program will underscore the importance of prenatal care for the soon-to-be mom and the best care for her newborn.

Remley, a pediatric emergency doctor, said grandmothers will be urged to deliver some common-sense advice to daughters long before pregnancy: “Don’t smoke, use drugs or drink. Take vitamins before you get pregnant. And prepare for pregnancy.”

A leading cause of infant deaths is low birth weight. Such babies—who are more vulnerable to infections and likely to have serious developmental problems—are often premature and weigh less than 5 pounds 8 ounces. There’s a long-term cost as well: Research shows that low-birth-weight babies are more prone to develop heart disease and diabetes as adults.

Create online community

Bill Kallio, AARP Virginia state director, said the campaign is designed to use the Internet to create an online community, moderated by the Virginia Department of Health, where grandmothers can post information about their experiences and ask questions.

“We do know that social networking over the Internet is rapidly growing,” he said. “We’re counting on the fact that most new grandparents are in their 50s. They are more comfortable with the Internet.”

The first 200 grandmothers who register online at www.aarp.org/grandmotherscampaign will receive a baby sleep sack. E-mails will be sent to AARP Virginia members alerting them to the campaign, and doctors’ offices will display posters directing grandmothers and mothers to the website.

“The person with the strongest emotional influence on the new or expectant mother is the child’s grandmother,” Kallio said.

Dei said the Grandmothers Campaign will recommend that pregnant women take folic acid every day to prevent babies from developing birth defects to the spine and brain, and learn the signs and symptoms of premature labor.

After the birth

After birth, Dei said, babies should sleep on their backs, not on their stomachs; to avoid the risk of suffocation, parents should never let a baby sleep between them.  Infants should be immunized on a pediatrician-approved schedule.

Grandfathers will not be left out. A second phase of the program, expected to begin next year, plans to get grandfathers involved after the first year of life.

One key to the program’s success will be to ensure that erroneous information is not passed from one generation to another.

Some grandparents react to current information about having a healthy baby with the response: “That’s not the way we did it for you, and you turned out fine,” Dei said.

Judi Hasson is a freelance writer living in McLean, Va.

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