- Associated Press - Friday, July 4, 2014

ATLANTA (AP) - When the security guard reached the top of the steps in the small bus parked at the checkpoint of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he did a double take.

Sitting in the rows were six blazer-clad teenage girls, holding notebooks and ready to show him their photo IDs.

Most of them aren’t even old enough for a driver’s license - a fact that made the security guard chuckle as he walked down the aisle.

“We don’t really ever have students here,” he explained to Hannah Vann, coordinator for the group.

Students visiting the CDC usually tour the museum at the main campus in another part of town. For these six teens, their appointment at the CDC Injury Center was all business.

The girls are part of a group called IMPACT, or Infant Mortality Public Awareness Campaign for Tennessee, which is part of Girls Inc. of Chattanooga.

For the past five years, IMPACT members have worked to educate their peers - both future and teen parents - about how they can reduce the risk of a child dying in the first year.

They were meeting with researchers at the CDC to share what they’ve learned, and to learn more.

“This is a very big deal. It’s not very often we get to interact with a group of young leaders on these issues,” said Sandra Alexander, expert consultant in child maltreatment at the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention.

Infant mortality - the rate of babies who die before their first birthday - is a chronic problem in Tennessee, and in Hamilton County.

The infant mortality rate in some Chattanooga neighborhoods compares to that of some developing nations like Romania or Mexico.

IMPACT was created by the governor’s office to reduce infant mortality rates. Girls Inc. took over the program, now funded by BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, in 2009. Beyond its original mission, the program helps the girls build skills in public speaking, research and networking, Vann said.

The group estimates it reached 730 Hamilton County middle and high school students last year. They’ve created billboards with messages like “You smoke, they choke!” and “They are what YOU eat!”

They have met with state and national lawmakers and traveled from Washington, D.C., to New York City. Last year they traveled to Wisconsin to learn more about how racial disparity plays into infant mortality.

Now they want to use that data to target all-too-common killers, such as shaken baby syndrome and drug abuse.

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