Pregnancy-Related Deaths Up in African-American Women

A new report from California highlights a national problem.

Posted: 04/29/2011 09:39 AM EDT
Filed Under health care

Earlier this week, the California Department of Public Health released startling findings to their most recent report on maternal deaths in their state. The percentage of women dying from pregnancy-related complications has increased at a "statistically significant" pace—and African-American, low-income and less-educated women were the most impacted.


And while the numbers don't seem high by looking at them—in 2008 there were 14 deaths to every 100,000 births, compared to 11 deaths in 2007 and 16.9 in 2006—researchers claim that, looking at the large picture, rates have been steadily increasing since 1999.


From analyzing records, researchers found that older, heavier and sicker mothers were among those who died from pregnancy-related complications—60 percent of the victims studied were overweight, and heart disease was the largest cause of death. They also found that African-American women were more than four times as likely as white women to die from childbirth, and women who did not finish high school were four times as likely to die as women who made it to college.


Another factor in why these deaths were on the rise was the overuse and underuse of medical procedures. For example, some women are getting C-sections they don't need, while others do not have access to the C-sections they do need. What's even more devastating is that there was a "strong chance" of preventing a third of these pregnancy deaths, researchers say.


But this isn't just California's problem.

A report by the New York Academy of Medicine found that pregnancy-related mortality rates were seven times higher for Blacks and twice as high for Hispanics and Asian/Pacific Islander women compared to whites.


This is a national epidemic that has remained pretty much under the radar. Recently, Women's E-News published a series of articles about increasing maternal death rates among black women to raise awareness around this issue. In one of their articles, "Black Women's Maternal Risks Go Unquestioned," journalist Sharon Johnson writes about how the lack of access to quality prenatal care plays a factor, and how a lifetime of institutional racism and gender oppression negatively affect health outcomes.

But most importantly, she discusses that the lack of a federal mandate in reporting these deaths is huge part of the problem.


The CDC estimates that 1,000 American women die of pregnancy-related complications each year, writes Johnson, but the number may be even higher because there is no federal requirement to report maternal deaths.


"Only 30 states have formed maternal review committees, so it is difficult to draw conclusions based on the limited number of deaths in a particular state like New York or California," Dr. Jeffrey C. King, chair of the maternal mortality special interest group of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, told Johnson.


To learn more about maternal deaths and how they can be prevented, go here.

(Photo: MIKE KITTRELL/The Press-Register /Landov)