Center for Justice Research Receives $2.6 Million NIH Grant

A baby resting her cheek on her hand.

Houston, Texas – Texas Southern University’s Center for Justice Research, Baylor College of Medicine, and UTHealth McGovern Medical School will receive $2.6 million from the National Institutes of Health to examine perinatal health disparities in the greater Houston area.
“We are pleased to receive this substantial grant from the NIH to examine the complex factors that contribute to maternal health disparities,” said Dr. Mary Evans Sias, Texas Southern University Interim President. “This research aligns directly with TSU’s mission of service and advancing knowledge to improve lives of our surrounding community, the entire city of Houston, the state, and the nation. We look forward to partnering with Baylor College of Medicine and UTHealth to gain a deeper understanding of the myriad of factors that impact the health of mothers and infants in our community.”
The research that will be funded by this grant comes at a time of urgent need for maternal health solutions, as the United States has the highest maternal mortality rate among 13 high-income countries, and as the maternal mortality rate for Black women in America is more than double the overall U.S. rate.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) find that 80 percent of pregnancy-related deaths are preventable and that Black women have three times the risk of maternal mortality compared to white women in the United States. Black women and Hispanic women also experience preterm birth and comorbidities, such as hypertension and gestational diabetes, at disproportionate rates. These disparities may worsen for women of color in high-risk communities who experience spillover stressors from violent crime, police violence, and incarceration.
“This research project is not only timely, but it is essential,” said Dr. Carl Goodman, Texas Southern University Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs. “It epitomizes the University’s longstanding commitment to social justice, equity, and finding solutions. It will provide data and insights critical to eliminating racial disparities in maternal healthcare. We are proud to be a part of this work.”
While past research has outlined individual-level risk factors for adverse perinatal health outcomes, this research will focus on how neighborhood-level factors may overlap and jointly impact perinatal health outcomes. More specifically, the researchers on the project recognize the overlap of environmental racism, housing segregation, disinvestment, under/over policing, incarceration, subsequent socioeconomic and health disparities and the common thread of structural racism throughout that may impact perinatal health, including maternal morbidity, preterm births, and low birth weights.
“Much of what we do at the Center for Justice Research, and what we aim to examine in this five-year project, is how all these environmental factors add up and contribute to disparities,” said Dr. Howard Henderson, Founder of the Center for Justice Research and TSU’s principal investigator on the project. “We are interested in the health outcomes of individuals in high-stress environments and historically under-resourced communities and whether a through-line can be drawn from structural racism to perinatal health disparities.”
Aligned with other projects at the Center, researchers aim to examine the root causes of inequities and the overlapping of health and criminal justice data to gain a more holistic understanding of perinatal health disparities.
The project has four key objectives:
To examine the impact of structural racism on racial and ethnic disparities in maternal hypertension and gestational diabetes.
To examine the impact of structural racism on racial and ethnic disparities in low birth weights and preterm birth
To determine the joint impact of multiple areas of structural racism on disparities in perinatal health outcomes
To determine key structural racism predictors of poor perinatal health outcomes
Through this research project, the Center for Justice Research and its partners in Baylor’s Program for Population and Environmental Health Disparities and at the UTHealth McGovern Medical School aim to identify the joint factors of perinatal health outcomes and leverage this knowledge to improve these outcomes and eliminate racial/ethnic disparities in perinatal health. While centered in Harris County, Texas, this research has significant implications for those residing in high-risk communities that face similar structural racism challenges and speaks to the national maternal health crisis among women of color in the United States.

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