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College peer educators fighting the infant mortality battle
by Joanna Blonska Minority Nurse Writer
Last issue, Minority Nurse addressed infant mortality in minority communities, discussing some of the disparities, research, and solutions surrounding the issue. This piece was submitted as a supplement to "A Quiet Crisis: Racial Disparities and Infant Mortality"
Aim for a healthy weight. Get enough folic acid in your diet. Find effective ways to manage stress. Talk to your doctor about your family history. All very important information to maintain good preconception health, but as nurses know all too well, people don't always follow good advice. But how about when the message is coming from someone you can relate to and trust—like a peer?
The U.S. Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health's Preconception Peer Educator (PPE) program taps into the power young people have to positively influence each other's behavior, by enlisting and training college students to become health ambassadors. PPEs—many of them nursing, public health, and social work students—organize events at college campuses, K–12 schools, and in the wider community to educate teens and fellow 20-somethings about infant mortality and to deliver the simple message that now is the time to take care of your health...for life.
Born out of OMH's A Healthy Baby Begins With You campaign, launched in 2007 with the aim of raising awareness about infant mortality in minority populations, who suffer some of the highest rates, the PPE program highlights preconception health as the less-emphasized factor to influence birth outcome and maternal and child health. Science shows that in communities of color, health disparities begin early in life, so PPEs serve as messengers—drawing attention to the critical link between healthy behaviors in youth and improved maternal and overall health in adulthood.
The information is important for other reasons too. While many adolescents and young adults may be a long way from thinking about starting a family, about half of pregnancies are unplanned, which makes preconception health all the more pertinent. Poor health in the early years can also lead to chronic disease later in life, and learning about the long-term payoff of preconception health is not only a way to catch problems early but to curb health disparities in communities as a whole.
The pilot program started in 2008 with Morgan State University, Spellman College, Fisk University, Meharry Medical College, and University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. The general objective was to tackle the high rates of infant mortality in the African American community by addressing the root causes much earlier in life.
Today, around 90 schools and almost 1,000 students have participated in preconception health trainings. PPEs who have completed the program say their efforts are making a difference in young lives, and the program has grown in popularity mostly through word of mouth.
"We've always been taught in the black community that when you get married and decide to have kids—that's when you should start thinking about your body," says 20-year-old PPE Atalie Ashley-Gordon, a University of South Florida student in public health. "But I learned that we were very wrong.
"Peers make a big difference in driving this message home," she adds, because "I'm just old enough to be influential but just young enough to be credible. That's what makes peer education so important."