McGill researchers identify racial preterm birth disparity

Today, the inequalities faced by different racial groups are far-reaching. So much so, researchers have found, that individuals can be affected before they’re even born. In the U.S., data from the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics from 2004 to 2006 has shown that black women experience preterm births 4.7 per cent more frequently than white women. Whether or not this was happening in Canada remained unclear, however, until this past week. McGill researchers have found that in Canada, black women are also more likely to have preterm births than white women.  

“We’ve never really had [this type of] data at a national level in Canada so it [had not] been known whether the same pattern […] might also be relevant,” Britt McKinnon, a post-doctoral fellow at McGill University’s Institute for Health and Social Policy, and a co-author on the paper, said.

McKinnon, along with the other researchers, wanted to shed light on the success of Canada’s universal health care system by examining the incidences of preterm births.

“The different historical experiences of black populations in the two countries, as well as Canada’s commitment to universal health care and perception as a more egalitarian society [might] diminish racial discrepancies,” said McKinnon. 

Though the study revealed that the absolute rates of preterm births were lower for both black and white women in Canada, like the U.S., there exists a difference between preterms of black and white women. In fact, 8.9 per cent of infants born to black mothers were preterm, whereas for white mothers, it was only 5.9 per cent. 

The researchers are now trying to understand why this difference exists, however, the reason has proved to be elusive. 

“[We] examined a limited set of socio-demographic factors [education, maternal age, nativity, etc.],” McKinnon stated. “[But we] did not find that these factors explained any substantial proportion of the observed article disparity in preterm birth in Canada.” 

Studies using U.S. datasets, such as Racial Disparities in Preterm Birth published in 2011 by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, suggest that elements like socioeconomic disadvantage and stress induced through life experiences—such as racial discrimination—may play a role. Not enough analysis has been done, however, to confirm if the same factors apply to Canada. The national context of both countries is too different to be able to procure a definitive conclusion as of yet. 

“The majority of black women in the U.S. are U.S.-born and are descendants of slaves,” said McKinnon. “Canada’s black population is mostly foreign-born, primarily from Africa and the Caribbean.”

This kind of information is relevant for both public health and clinical interest and also acts as a guide for future research. Understanding the basics of this disparity could help find a resolution to serve the future generations of the black population in Canada. Until then, a number of factors still need to be inspected, such as health behaviours—smoking, obesity—and neighborhood conditions. 

“At this point, this has been a descriptive study,” said McKinnon. “The results should encourage future research to understand whether factors like socioeconomic disadvantage, discrimination and health behaviours contribute to the observed differences in preterm birth risk between black and white women in Canada.”

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