A symposium in Salem County will raise awareness about Black maternal health issues

An event addressing maternal health disparities will be held in one of the poorest cities in New Jersey.

A mother holds her daughter in the air.

A mother plays with her 6-month-old daughter Thursday, July 21, 2011, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

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A symposium on Black maternal health on Saturday will take place at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Salem, one of the poorest cities in New Jersey that lacks accessible health infrastructure.

“You don’t get a lot of doctors coming down here,” said Salem Mayor Jody Veler. “Obstetricians are few and far between to begin with, but in a rural area, it’s very difficult.”

The nearest birthing center is a half hour away, at Inspira Medical Center Mullica Hill in Gloucester County.

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Barbara George Johnson, vice president of external affairs and urban policy at the John S. Watson Institute for Urban Policy and Research at Kean University, said it’s important to hold the event in Salem to remind people about the disparities.

“When you look at some of these counties that are considered rural, even though New Jersey is an urban state… the access to health care mirrors a lot of what we see across the country in rural areas,” she said.

Infant mortality is at a record low in New Jersey, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But it’s a different story in the Black community.

Pregnancy-related deaths among Black women is at least three times higher than among white women. Infant mortality rates in New Jersey between 2019-2021, on average, is also highest among the Black population.

Both George Johnson and Veler are panelists at the symposium this weekend, which is sponsored by the Upsilon Delta Omega chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.

Veller hopes that participants at the symposium will walk away with an understanding of the serious health care disparity that exists, particularly in communities like hers that are not just rural, but majority people of color.

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“The numbers [and] the data is real, and culture has to be taken into consideration,” she said. “Social economic status also is a problem. But people with trauma don’t always respond the way that is expected by a dominant culture.”

George Johnson of the John S. Watson Institute will discuss the work her organization is doing with the New Jersey Economic Development Authority and the Nurture New Jersey program on creating a Maternal Infant Health Innovation Center, where she sits on the  board.

“It’s a Black woman issue,” George Johnson said. “Black women must lead.”

“How do we lead and move ourselves away from ever having this conversation again, 30 years from now, about maternal deaths and infant deaths in Black communities? That’s the expectation,” she adds.

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