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High maternal mortality rates reveal lack of resilience in public health

America is 32nd out of 35 in the ranking of infant mortality rates among the world’s wealthiest nations. Further, black women in America are 3 to 4 times more likely to die as a result of their pregnancies compared to white women. These statistics present a reality that the quality of America’s maternal health system does not correspond to its global economic standing, and black Americans are disproportionately affected by its shortcomings.

Public health, including maternal health, is a crucial aspect of community resilience. The World Health Organization uses health indicators, including 11 measures of maternal, newborn and child health, as a way of monitoring progress towards its Global Strategy to promote and protect public health. When individuals and families are impacted by lack of access to sufficient medical care, their abilities to contribute to the well-being of their communities and sustain an acceptable quality of life is put in jeopardy. In the United States, this lack of access to quality maternal health care is not just an individual problem, but a larger, structural problem. 

A nurse checks vital signs on a pregnant patient (Source Military Health System)
A nurse checks vital signs on a pregnant patient (Source Military Health System)

Maternal mortality, and near-deaths resulting from pregnancies, are often preventable. In many reported cases, doctors do not take seriously the complaints of symptoms from women of color. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 60 percent of the 700-900 maternal deaths annually in the United States could have been avoided. Several states have made it a priority to address this tragic statistic. Last year, the New Jersey Department of Health announced the $4.3 million “Healthy Women, Healthy Families” program, which aims to address racially disproportionate maternal health outcomes based in the state. The Program approaches the issue on the county and municipal level by providing high-risk families access to information and community services, and providing education and outreach to health providers. In California, several medical professionals formed the California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative, and subsequently a maternal mortality review committee, which examined the specific cause of death for each mother who had died from pregnancy complications in California in the preceding five years. The Collaborative developed tools and trainings for medical professionals in hospitals, and now 88 percent of birth hospitals in the state are part of its program.

More city and state governments are recognizing the risks posed by a lack of resources for mothers, especially mothers of color. Recent cases have shown that race is a stronger determinant than education level or financial resources when it comes to maternal health outcomes. As communities look to invest in resilience, maternal and infant health are two of several challenges which require comprehensive solutions which address a nexus of contributing factors such as racial disparities, access to healthcare and income equality.

Sources and Further Reading

Black Mothers Keep Dying After Giving Birth. Shalon Irving’s Story Explains Why – NPR

Racism in Health Care – For Black Women Who Become Pregnant, It’s a Matter of Life and DeathNational Women’s Law Center

Newark Doulas Take On Disparate Birth Outcomes For Black Mothers—Head FirstWNYC

NJ Agencies Awarded $4.7 Million to Improve Black Infant, Maternal MortalityState of New Jersey

After her own complicated delivery, lawmaker aims to address Texas’s alarming maternal death rate – Stat News

To Keep Women From Dying In Childbirth, Look To California – NPR

Pregnancy related deaths-  The Center for Disease Control and Prevention  

Accountability for Women’s and Children’s Health World Health Organization