Filed Under:  Health & Wellness

Complacency on child birth mortality rates might be ending

30th December 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Rita Henley Jensen
Contributing Writer

(Special to the Trice Edney News Wire from Women’s eNews) – Years of complacency about the worsening rates at which U.S. women – especially women of color – are dying or being injured during childbirth might be ending. In a one-week period last month maternal mortality in the United States suddenly gained significant attention in the political and corporate spheres.

In New York, the health committee of the City Council held on November 13 a public hearing on the city’s high maternal mortality rate among women of color. The city, where nine percent of all African Americans live, reported in 2010 that African-American women in New York City died nine times as often as white women from pregnancy-related causes.

Six days after the council hearing, Merck announced, in an unrelated event, a total of $6 million in donations to eight organizations to work toward reducing the number of U.S. women not living to see their child’s first birthday. Merck, the drug-making giant based in Whitehouse Station, N.J., will be donating $150,000 each to four grassroots organizations providing direct care to pregnant women and new mothers.

The rest of the money – Merck would not specify an amount – will go toward a collaborative research project among six states with maternal mortality review boards to develop best policies and practices to reduce maternal deaths and three projects with health professionals to improve responses to obstetric emergencies.

These two developments could indicate a growing realization that healthy mothers are crucial to reducing racial disparities in maternal deaths and premature or low-birth weight infants.

Women’s eNews is tied to both developments. With support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation we have been reporting over several years on the unexplained and rarely questioned disparities in the high death rates among African-American women giving birth. After Women’s eNews hosted a Brooklyn meeting in May of this year, based on our coverage, the staff of the City Council health committee contacted us for assistance in planning the hearing.

The same series of news articles and videos also informed Merck about the need for leadership in saving the lives of mothers in the United States, in addition to other nations.

“On behalf of Merck for Mothers I would like to thank Women’s eNews for all of your dedication in helping to raise awareness of maternal mortality, particularly here in the United States,” Dr. Naveen Rao, head of Merck for Mothers, a $500 million global initiative, wrote to us in an email. “’Healthy Births, Healthy Moms: Black Maternal Health in America’ is a powerful series that will go a long way towards helping us reduce the growing rates of women dying from complications experienced during pregnancy and childbirth.”

Increasing Death Rates

The United States has the highest maternal mortality rate among developed nations. While across the globe the rates are dropping, by 2010 rates in the U.S. rose to 21 deaths per 100,000 births, according to the World Health Organization, twice the rate it was in 1990.

African-American families suffer a maternal mortality rate that’s three to four times higher than White women in the United States, according to the Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs. In addition, the number of maternal deaths in the United States may be significantly undercounted. Since 2007 the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stopped publishing current U.S. maternal mortality data on its website because data is reported inconsistently.

Outside the circles of maternal health advocates, the growing numbers of U.S. women dying from pregnancy-related causes, regardless of race, has failed to catch public attention. For example, who knows that there is a federal program that hears experts’ testimony on what is needed to reduce maternal mortality in the United States? To find it you have to know what you are looking for and search “Task Force on Infant Morality” on the Health and Human Services website. The task force is said to be on hiatus and has no meetings planned.

As for African-American maternal health, reports from the Office of Minority Health make rare, if any, mentions of maternal death disparities. The same is true for many other organizations advocating for improved health in African American communities.

Dr. Priya Agrawal, executive director of the Merck for Mothers campaign, said mothers dying in childbirth are an “unacceptable tragedy.” She added that the U.S. healthcare system does not have a standard routine for treating obstetric emergencies. “If you see one hospital, you have seen one hospital,” she said, emphasizing the lack of standard protocol for medical providers when mothers in labor are in urgent need of life-saving care.

“Every death must be counted and reviewed,” Agrawal said, “and the lessons shared.”

She added that the leading causes of maternal mortality in the United States are the same as elsewhere: post-partum hemorrhage, embolisms and preeclampsia.

Rita Henley Jensen is founder and editor in chief of Women’s eNews.

This article originally published in the December 30, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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