African-American babies die at twice the rate of white babies in Utah, a rate previously shared by Pacific Islanders.
With a $130,000 federal grant in 2011, public health officials explored why. They interviewed 605 adult Pacific Islanders living in Utah in English, Tongan or Samoan. They found the state's Tongan and Samoan communities had more than twice the rate of obesity and nearly double the rate of adult diabetes of other Utahns.
They also encountered a cultural belief that larger moms and babies are healthier, which can put infants at risk.
An 8-pound infant is too small. A 10-pound baby is prized, explained Ivoni Malohifou'ou Nash, program director of the National Tongan American Society.
Women don't focus on nutrition, Nash said after the survey results were released, and are told if they eat pork, salt and taro root, their milk will be better, but if they shower or exercise after giving birth, their milk will go away.
Gestational diabetes may be the result of such advice, putting the mom's and baby's lives at risk.
Working with the health department, the society urged women to abandon those beliefs. The health department produced educational videos and sponsored free health screenings in under-served communities as a means to draw women to charity clinics for prenatal care.
Last year, health officials noticed a decline in obesity during pregnancy among Pacific Islanders. In addition, the number taking folic acid supplements increased.
"Moms are taking the prenatal meds that they need to take. They're watching their diet and exercising and eating healthy food," said Nash. "Education is all they needed."
Pacific Islander, African American infant mortality in Utah
For 2004-2007, the mortality rate among infants was:
Pacific Islanders, 7.4 per 1,000
African Americans, 8.4 per 1,000
Statewide, 4.5 per 1,000
For 2008-2011, the mortality rate among infants was:
Pacific Islanders, 3.6 per 1,000
African Americans, 7.6 per 1,000
Statewide, 5.0 per 1,000