June 18, 2024

The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) has awarded a $5 million grant to the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and its partners, the University of Illinois-Chicago, National WIC Association, Reaching our Sisters Everywhere (ROSE) and Urban Metrics Consultants. This funding will support research and implementation of evidence-based strategies that can recognize and treat urgent maternal health warning signs among participants in the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) supplemental food program.

Dr. Dorothy Cilenti

Dr. Dorothy Cilenti

Dr. Christine Tucker

Dr. Christine Tucker

Led by Dorothy Cilenti, DrPH, and Christine Tucker, PhD, of the Gillings School’s Department of Maternal and Child Health (MCH), researchers from a diverse team of academic and maternal health organizations will review evidence to determine what is effective to identify and address urgent maternal warning signs among pregnant and postpartum people to reduce maternal morbidity and mortality. Then, through a competitive process, the team will provide funding to state and local WIC sites to test and adapt these evidence-based interventions in a variety of WIC settings.

“WIC serves around 600,000 pregnant and postpartum women a year, and many of them may need additional medical or behavioral health care following pregnancy,” Cilenti said. “They have the capacity to build awareness and educate the population, but they also are a major provider of services to local communities. So, they can be a great referral and connection point for those in need.”

“We have an amazing team leading this work,” Tucker said, “including new faculty members in MCH Lindsey Yates and Larelle Bookhart, who bring expertise in implementation science and breastfeeding support, and Deputy Director Amy Mullenix.”

Pregnancy-related complications result in approximately 700 deaths in the U.S each year, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the rates of short or long-term health impacts related to labor and delivery are even higher. Risks can include cardiac events, high blood pressure, stroke, mental health crises, postpartum depression or anxiety, substance use disorder, intimate partner violence, and more.

Over 5 years, the research team will work closely with FNS to support adapting and testing evidence-based interventions to recognize the signs of these health risks and improve maternal health. This project is expected to result in findings that can be used to inform future approaches to support maternal health in WIC settings.

“I am excited to rigorously evaluate these interventions and contribute to the evidence base of what works to improve maternal health in WIC settings,” said Tucker.

“The Gillings School has been building capacity to support states and communities to address the maternal health crisis through the Maternal Health Learning and Innovation Center, and this work extends our reach to the WIC program,” Cilenti added. “It also demonstrates our commitment to translating what works from research or academia to the field. We are co-designing and co-creating the evidence with the practitioners, which increases the likelihood that the interventions will actually be effective and implemented in community settings.”

The grant runs through March 2029. To learn more, please visit https://www.fns.usda.gov/grant/wic-recognizing-addressing-mmm-warning-signs.

Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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