NEWARK, NJ - New Jersey First Lady Tammy Murphy came to Newark to back a national initiative to improve maternal health, including during pregnancy and childbirth, in America's cities. 

"The grim reality in our country, and especially here in New Jersey, is that too many babies lose their mothers before they will ever be able to remember them," said Murphy on Tuesday at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in support of a plan to coordinate efforts to address the leading contributors to maternal mortality. "We are here to join together to change this reality."

Murphy's comments were made before representatives of healthcare providers and nonprofit organizations working together as part of a safer childbirth cities initiative led by Merck for Mothers, a $500 million program funded by the New Jersey-based pharmaceutical company. Newark is one of nine cities selected for the initiative. Camden, South Jersey's largest city, was also selected. 

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The program will support community-based organizations trying to stem high rates of maternal mortality and address the growing disparity in access to maternal healthcare, especially along lines of race and class in American cities.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a black woman is three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth complications than a white woman. Recent statistics show that black mothers in New Jersey are five times more likely than white mothers to die within the first year of giving birth. 

The overall infant mortality rate in New Jersey is one of the lowest in the country. But recent data demonstrates the state has the third-largest racial disparity in infant deaths among black and white babies in the nation. Children of black mothers in the Garden State are approximately three times as likely to die before the age of one as those born to white women.

Keri Logosso-Misurell, executive director of the Greater Newark Healthcare Coalition, spoke of the challenges faced by black and Hispanic women in cities like Newark who are about to give birth.

"In Newark, one of our hurdles is the deep mistrust of the health care system, which permeates other parts of the community as well. The roots of trauma and toxic stress are very real in the lives of the people who live here," said Logosso-Misurell, who noted that Newark's major labor and delivery hospitals, including University Hospital, Clara Maass, and Newark Beth Israel, will be key partners in the program. "Our clinical partners want to do the best job possible, and some of the strongest and most capable people live here. We have to tap into this as part of the solution."

Newark residents have been facing another grave public health problem because of the lead water contamination crisis affecting the city. Pregnant women and young children are most at risk for lead exposure. Exposure to high levels of lead before and during pregnancy can cause premature birth, low birth weight, miscarriage, and problems with the development of a baby’s brain and nervous system, among other issues.

First Lady Murphy told TAPinto Newark that she understands how the lead issue fits into the overall picture of improving maternal care in Newark. 

"It's not a secret how lead impacts children, especially those under the age of six," Murphy said."[Gov. Phil Murphy's] administration is completely focused, importantly, on figuring out the infrastructure in the long term. It's something that we have to do. In the short term, the administration is working with the city to make sure that everyone has the filters, bottled water, or whatever urgent care is needed right away. That also has to be a priority."

Murphy, the mother of four children, noted the urgent need to help all mothers throughout the state, including those in the inner cities, to live healthy lives after they give the gift of life.

"I'm grateful to all those who made the decision to recognize not just the extreme need in Camden and Newark, but also the commitment of those cities and our administration to partner and protect all of our mothers and babies," Murphy told the crowd. "Together, and only together, we will make New Jersey the safest place in the country to deliver a baby."