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U Research Aims to Help African Refugees Deliver Healthier Babies

Andrea Smardon
Keri Gibson, co-researcher and attending physician at University of Utah Redwood Health Center Obstetrics and Gynecology

Some minority babies in Utah are more likely to experience health problems or die than their white counterparts. That’s especially true for refugees. A new research project out of the University of Utah aims to help African refugee mothers deliver healthier babies. 

In the waiting room at Redwood Health Center, a woman in a black headdress and flip flops walks by carrying her young son. Just sitting for a few minutes, you can hear multiple languages and see people from all over the world. Physician and OB-GYN Keri Gibson is known by her patients for trying to speak their language. If a Sudanese woman walks into her office, she knows a few words in Nuer.

“People appreciate the effort so much,” Gibson says. “It goes a long way.” She says there are a lot of barriers for refugee women to getting good prenatal care. In some cases, she says preventive care or health screenings may be unknown concepts. “We know that people who are newly arrived in this country are high risk of being marginalized due to socioeconomic challenges, lack of knowledge of the infrastructure, lack of English skills, lack of understanding of the concept of something as basic as refills. You can give someone a prescription for prenatal vitamins with five refills, but that’s not a universal concept that you can just go back to a pharmacy and ask for more medicine.”

Based on Utah Birth Certificate data, African-born refugee women are more likely than white women to experience pregnancy and delivery problems, including infant death. But Gibson says many of these problems can be prevented or made less serious. A three year University of Utah pilot project will provide trained healthcare workers from Sudanese and Somali communities to act as cultural liaisons and make home visits. Then university researchers will study the impact. Gibson says if they’re successful, the project can be replicated.

“We have Burmese refugees, Nepali speaking Butanese patients, and if we can get this model to sort of work and show that it’s beneficial, we can apply it to any sort of group that’s at risk,” Gibson says.  

The Utah Office of Health Disparities has also released a new study showing that African American and Pacific Islander babies are more likely to die before their first birthday than other babies in Utah. The Office is now working with these communities to raise awareness about infant mortality. 

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the language Dr. Gibson was speaking as Dinka.

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