With African-American and rural infants in Maryland facing disproportionately high death rates, School of Public Health researchers have embarked on a yearlong study examining the impact of race, geography and other factors on maternal and child health disparities.

The 17-member team, including faculty and students from the Department of Family Science and the Maryland Center for Health Equity on campus, will analyze risk factors for infant mortality, examine how community health workers and “pregnancy navigators” can help expectant mothers, and catalog innovative health programs that already exist.

They will present preliminary analyses next month and submit the initial report to the Maryland Health Care Commission in November.

“In many ways this is a golden opportunity to take on a persistent and tragic problem, bring various faculty and students into the project, and hopefully make a difference when it comes to policy in Maryland,” said Sandra Quinn, chair of the Department of Family Science, who is leading the study.

The General Assembly passed a bill last April mandating that the Maryland Health Care Commission produce the study, which will be the first state analysis of infant mortality since 2011. Evidence suggests that mortality rates among rural infants have increased in recent years, while rates among blacks have remained high.

The U.S. has the highest infant mortality rate in the developed world, with a death rate some three times higher for black women and their babies than for white women and infants. In Maryland, the highest rates can be found in heavily black areas like Baltimore and rural counties like Somerset and Worcester.

Investigators include Marian Moser Jones and Edmond Shenassa, both associate professors of family science; Marie Thoma, an assistant professor of family science; and Elaine Anderson, professor of family science. Faculty research associates include Amelia Jamison and Devlon Jackson. Associate Dean for Research and Principal Associate Dean Dushanka Kleinman of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics will serve as a consultant.

Student participants include both doctoral researchers and undergraduates. Marie Ngobo Ekamby, a junior public health science major, is working with Thoma on the infant mortality study, helping developing the inventory of Maryland programs to fight the problem.

“I wanted to learn more about maternal mortality and what pregnancy outcomes look like for women who look like me,” Ekamby said.