Black Women Lead in Maternal Deaths – But Why?

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  • WASHINGTON-High rates of obesity, high blood pressure and inadequate prenatal care cause death from childbirth more often for African-Americans in the United States than for whites and other ethnic groups. Worsening this trend are the increasing numbers of cesarean sections nationally. These procedures can result in deadly complications for women dangerously overweight or suffering from hypertension or other ailments. Nationally, blacks have a four-times greater risk of pregnancy-related death than whites—a rate of 36.1 per 100,000 live births compared with 9.6 for whites and 8.5 for Hispanics, according to a 2008 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

    Maternal mortality rates have been rising in the United States since the mid-1990s. In 1997, the black maternal mortality rate was 21.5 per 100,000 live births compared with 8.0 for Hispanics and 5.2 for whites, according to the CDC. The rate for other races was 8.8.

    By 2007, the black maternal mortality rate had jumped to 28.4, roughly three times the rates among whites and Hispanics at 10.5 and 8.9 respectively. Statistics were not broken out for Asians/Pacific Islanders and Native Americans. Trends show that black maternal mortality rates are increasing in some parts of the country, and two recent studies highlighting the problem have renewed calls for increased focus on reducing the deaths.

    According to the new reports, the pregnancy-related mortality rate in some states rivals that in some developing nations. The problem is particularly acute in New York City, whereblacks are nearly eight times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than whites, and in California where pregnant blacks are four times as likely to die from childbirth.

    “The magnitude of this black-white gap in maternal mortality is the greatest among all health disparities . . . and that gap is growing. It’s unacceptable,” Michael Lu, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology and public health at UCLA and an expert in racial and socio-economic disparities in maternal and infant health, recently told PBS NewsHour.

    The black-white gap also stubbornly persists for a variety of socio-economic reasons, including education and income levels, access to and quality of health care, and lifestyle and diet. Improved health care could reduce the maternal death rate by 40 percent to 50 percent, according to CDC estimates, but medical attention has been focused more often on reducing infant mortality during the past decades.

    “When we look at some of the factors associated with maternal mortality, most of the underlying factors tend to be dominant in the African-American community, and it is manifested in the health disparities that affect our population,” says Dr. Kerry M. Lewis, chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Howard University’s College of Medicine and chief of the Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine.

    Lewis, who specializes in high-risk pregnancies, says the mortality rate reflects lack of access to specialized health care that integrates comprehensive skills and technology. Too often, he says, patients are treated by family practitioners, nurse midwives, general obstetricians and gynecologists instead of specialists trained in high-risk pregnancies and medical problems that can cause complications during birth.

    Obesity and hypertension are the major contributors to the black maternal mortality rate, leading to death from strokes, renal failure and other complications associated with obesity, Lewis says.

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