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Higher crime zip codes in Kansas City linked to poorer pregnancy outcomes

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A new study looked at women in Kansas City, Missouri, and found that just living in a zip code with more violent crime raises the risk of having a low birth weight or premature baby.

Trang Gonzalez-Nguyen is excited about having a healthy pregnancy at 21 weeks. That's after several miscarriages. Gonzalez-Nguyen says she's never thought about where she lives being a factor in whether she has a healthy baby. She has spent her life in two zip codes on the northeast side that are among the highest for violent crime in Kansas City.

"I don't really pay attention to it. Every once in a while I hear sirens. I mean, I'm just used to it," she said.

Researchers from the UMKC School of Medicine and the Kansas City Health Department found that just living in a zip code with more violence increases the chances of having a premature or low birth weight baby. There was a 20 to 25 percent greater chance of a poor pregnancy outcome compared to those in zip codes with the least violence. That's even after researchers adjusted for things like age, race, weight and behaviors such as drinking, smoking and drug abuse.

"There was a persistent and strong relationship between the level of community violence and having an adverse pregnancy outcome," said Dr. Felix Okah, a professor of pediatrics at the UMKC School of Medicine.

The study didn't examine why, but Dr. Okah says it's possible that so-called background stress is hurting pregnant women. It's stress they may not even be aware they're experiencing. He says health professionals may want to focus more on stress management for these women, but he says the bigger message is to elected officials.

"To understand that violence is not purely a law enforcement problem," Dr. Okah said.

He says it's a public health problem, too.

Gonzalez-Nguyen and her care team at Samuel U. Rodgers Health Center are doing all they can to help her have a healthy baby.

"Once I have my baby in my arms, it just means a lot to me," she said.

The study is published in the Southern Medical Journal. Dr. Okah says it's a significant issue considering low birth weight or premature babies have health problems that impact them throughout life.