OPINION: Breaking barriers for Black Alaskans’ health

Similar to most Alaskans, I want nothing more than to see our children and families in good health. However, as a Black Alaskan pursuing a degree in nursing, I’ve personally witnessed and experienced health disparities that put so many of my community members at risk.

The Alaska Children’s Trust 2023 KIDS COUNT Report and the Black Alaskans Health Status Report shed light on significant health disparities faced by the Black community in Alaska. Two key data points are low birth weight and teen pregnancy.

When a baby is born at a low birth weight (under 5.5 lbs.), the baby is more at risk for experiencing developmental delays and disabilities. Although Alaska has one of the lowest rates of low birth weight babies (6.6%, compared to 8.2% nationally), Black babies consistently have a higher prevalence of being underweight. In 2020, 13% of Black babies were considered low birth weight, almost twice the state average.

In addition, teenage mothers are more likely to give birth to preterm and low birth weight babies. Plus, having a baby during high school can disrupt the mother’s education and economic opportunities that set the course for her success in life and ability to support her child.

While Alaska has shown a slight decrease in overall teen birth rates, the Black Alaskan Health Status Report presents a contrasting narrative. From 2018 to 2020, there was an increase in teen birth rates among Black Alaskans from 15% to 20%.

These statistics underscore the urgent need for targeted interventions, improved access to quality health care, and a comprehensive approach to address complex factors. The data shows why it is important to disaggregate data and the importance of health equity. Health equity is when every Alaskan has a fair and just opportunity to be healthy.

Amana Mbise, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said, “Speaking about health disparities can feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You can take small actions like participating in your local community and speaking to your representatives to support policies that increase access to health care for all, better schools, nutrition, housing and transportation. We can all do something to address health disparities.”


One strategy that may help bridge the gap passed the Alaska Legislature last year: Senate Bill 58, a bill lengthening Medicaid coverage for mothers postpartum from 60 days to 12 months. The bill extended eligibility to pregnant women within 225% of the federal poverty line, meaning that not only will moms be covered for longer due to the extension, but due to lowered income requirements, more new mothers qualify.

Other strategies for health equity include:

• Increasing outreach for Medicaid renewals and working to lower the uninsured rate of Alaskan children, which is one of the highest in the country.

• Encouraging diverse representation in medical fields, ensuring that patients are comfortable and that providers have a cultural understanding of their patients via interpreters and community liaisons.

• A mother’s environment and stressors play a big role in her and her baby’s health outcomes. We must create a supportive, interconnected, and violence-free community around pregnant moms.

• Providing access to health education, including age-appropriate sexual education for teenagers, in order to prevent early pregnancy.

• Educating and supporting policies that promote equity, including efforts towards housing and economic stability, which in turn leads to better health outcomes.

I believe that there is capacity for change in our communities and systems. I know that, with work, the story of Black health can match the strides we’ve made for health overall and that there can be better outcomes for the next generation of young people like me.

Hailey Clark is a sophomore at the University of New Mexico, where she studies nursing with minors in Spanish and Africana Studies. She is also the secretary for her campus’ Black Student Union and her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. She hopes to become a Family Nurse Practitioner and own her own clinic in Anchorage. Hailey spends her time hanging out with her friends and family and loves being outside with her dog, Joe.

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