An innovative partnership between the University of Mississippi Medical Center and Mississippi State University is tackling one of the state’s greatest challenges: the health and development of its youngest children.
UMMC’s Center for Advancement of Youth and MSU’s Social Science Research Center are launching the Child Health and Development Project to improve early childhood health in Mississippi through a three-year, $10.5 million grant from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration. First-year funding is $3.5 million.
The pilot project, aimed at measurably improving health and development outcomes for children younger than 6 years, will provide screenings and interventions in child care centers, doctors’ offices and other locations.
The CHDP will also train child development professionals from physicians to child care workers in best practices for evaluating and treating children who have unmet developmental needs and increase the number of medical providers and allied health professionals specializing in child development. The importance of early childhood stimulation in language skills, reading and socialization will be highlighted, and data on results will be gathered.
U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was instrumental in authoring and advocating for the CHDP initiative.
“Mississippi has an opportunity to set a national model for improving the health and well-being of children,” Cochran said. “This project will bring together state officials, health care providers, and medical researchers to develop a statewide system to enhance early childhood health and development. This program can benefit our state and the nation, and I’m pleased that UMMC and Mississippi State have been selected to work cooperatively on this important challenge.”
Success in this project will mean a brighter future for Mississippians, said Dr. Susan Buttross, principal investigator for the project and UMMC professor of pediatrics. “This will make an enormous difference in the lives of children and in Mississippi not only today but generationally. By reaching these children early and giving them a healthier start, we can make a difference in raising graduation rates, lowering teen pregnancies and substance abuse, and improving overall health years from now.”
UMMC professor of pediatrics Dr. Robert Annett is the project’s research director.
Fewer than a fifth of Mississippi children ages 6 and younger are screened for developmental and behavioral disorders, the lowest rate in the nation, reflecting about half of the national average of 30.8 percent.
Increasing evidence shows that early childhood experiences can have long-term health consequences, such as mental health problems, hypertension, diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease, and can shape educational, social and physical development as well as economic well-being. For a young child, poverty can bring poor health and nutrition, inadequate housing, lack of exposure to reading and other challenges.
“The health and development problems we face in Mississippi have been well documented. We believe this new collaborative initiative will positively impact the lives of many of our most vulnerable children,” said Linda Southward, the project leader for Mississippi State and a research professor at the SSRC.
Said UMMC’s Dr. LouAnn Woodward, vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, “The problems facing our children and families are so large, and the stakes are so high. I am excited to see the difference this project will make in the lives of our children and the future health of Mississippi.”
CHDP’s goal is, by 2020, to touch at least 60 percent of Mississippi children and families through promotional materials and developmental screenings as measured by the National Survey of Children’s Health. During the next three years, CHDP seeks to show improved practices in development in the state’s early childhood care providers, with the hope of seeing a 30 percent increase in the number of families reading to their children daily.
The project will rely on many agencies and organizations for implementation, including the state Department of Health, the state Department of Education and the Mississippi Division of Medicaid.
MSU President Mark E. Keenum said, “We know that there is tremendous power in partnerships, and I’m proud that Mississippi State is a part of this effort to make Mississippi better.”
“By working together — leveraging the capacity and capabilities of our two institutions — we believe that we’ll improve not only the lives of these children,” he said, “but their families’ well-being and the state as a whole.”