In 2021, the US will have one of the worst maternal mortality rates in the nation’s history, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The report found that 1,205 people died of maternal causes in the US in 2021. That represents a 40% increase from the previous year.
These are deaths that occur during pregnancy or within 42 days after delivery, according to World Health Organization.
The US rate for 2021 is 32.9 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, which is more than ten times the estimated rate of some other high-income countriesincluding Australia, Austria, Israel, Japan and Spain all reached between 2 and 3 deaths per 100,000 in 2020.
According to data from the World Health Organizationn, the maternal mortality rate in high-income countries overall was 12 per 100,000 live births in 2020, while in low-income countries it was 430 per 100,000.
International comparisons of maternal deaths are difficult because of methodological differences in tracking data, warns the author of the new US report, Donna Hoyert, a health scientist at the National Center for Health Statistics, at the CDC. But, he says, the US is “generally not that good” on maternal mortality.
“There is no reason for a rich country to have poor mothers dying,” he said Eileen Crimmins, professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California. The CDC’s latest data compilation from state committees examining these deaths, found that 84% of pregnancy-related deaths in the US are preventable.
The increase in maternal mortality in 2021 was “broadly seen across age groups and racial and Hispanic-origin groups,” Hoyert said.
He attributes the rise in maternal deaths to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We had some early warnings of an increase between 2019 and 2020 that maternal mortality rates appear to be increasing during this pandemic,” he said. “In the overall COVID deaths that occurred in 2021, there was a shift toward younger people, so those are in the age groups where people are more likely to be pregnant or recently pregnant.”
He said provisional data suggests deaths peaked in 2021 and began to decline last year. “So hopefully that’s the top,” Hoyert said.
However, some experts worry that other trends across the country could make these numbers worse, not better, including abortion restrictions that ca delay in care for pregnancy complicationsand staffing problems in hospitals and closure of rural maternity wards.
The maternal mortality rate among Black Americans is higher than other racial groups; in 2021 it was 69.9 per 100,000, which is 2.6 times higher than the rate for White women.
Dr. Veronica Gillispie-Bell, an OB-GYN at Ochsner Health in Louisiana who works with the state health department to investigate maternal deaths, says social factors, not biological ones, fuel the racial gap. “We need to address the social factors that may be barriers to accessing care or exacerbating your medical conditions when it comes to pregnancy,” she said. “It’s not just about hospital doctors.”
Louisiana belongs to a group of states working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to improve processes in the health care system to prevent maternal deaths and reduce racial disparities. Gillispie-Bell said she hopes the efforts will pay off, but “it’s not something that happens overnight. It’s going to be a while before we see the benefits of that change.”
Change can’t come soon enough for the families whose lives are affected. Wanda Irving’s daughter died of complications from high blood pressure just three weeks after giving birth to a baby girl in 2017. Irving, who had spoke to NPR in the past about his daughter, now runs an organization called Maternal Action Project by Dr. Shalon to raise awareness of the dangers for black mothers in particular.
son of Irving, Shalon Irvingis a great scientist, working as an epidemiologist at the CDC in Atlanta.
Wanda Irving tears up as she talks about her daughter’s final weeks. “He gained 9 pounds last week. He had a headache. One foot was bigger than the other and he said, ‘There’s something terribly wrong, can you check.’ “
But he continued to be sent home from the hospital even though he insisted he needed medical attention. About three weeks after she gave birth, she collapsed at home, and never woke up.
Wanda Irving says her son’s death was preventable – she attributes it to racism within the health care system, to doctors ignoring her son’s symptoms and health risks.
Irving now lives in her son’s house and raises her grandson, who is now 6 years old, and is smart, but is struggling with his loss.
“There are days where she’s completely lost and she breaks down and she’s in tears,” Irving said, saying her granddaughter would explain why she was crying by saying, ‘I love my mommy. Can I die to visit my mommy?’ “
Irving works to raise awareness of maternal mortality, she said, because she doesn’t want another girl or boy to grow up without their mother’s love.
“People need to understand the enormous devastation that maternal death causes and the loss to society as well as to families,” he said.