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Merck is fighting the rise of maternal mortality in the United States

2015 Summit

In parts of the US, maternal death rates are on par with sub-Saharan Africa

By Emily Cegielski on April 24, 2015

Every year, 60,000 women nearly die from pregnancy complications in the United States, according to a 2012 study. In fact, in the US, the number of women who die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth has more than doubled over the last 20 years. In parts of the country, maternal death rates are on par with sub-Saharan Africa. These startling statistics are only made worse by the fact that 50 percent of these deaths are said to be avoidable.

So, why is maternal mortality on the rise in the US?

Merck presented a panel of experts on Thursday at the Women in the World Summit to address this issue and offer some solutions to what has been called “a human rights crisis in the US”

“There are three areas we absolutely need to address immediately,” Dr. Priya Agrawal, executive director of Merck for Mothers, explained. The leading causes of maternal death in the US are blood clots, severe bleeding and pregnancy-induced high blood pressure, a condition known as preeclampsia. But, there’s no standard protocol for health professionals regarding pregnancy issues, and maternal deaths aren’t being counted in a reliable way, said Agrawal. She added that the statistics and facts are largely ignored. “Silence around the issue is allowing the complacency to continue.”

High mortality rates often appear in regions where people lack access to health care. For example, the South has the highest rate of maternal mortality due in part because many remote communities do not have direct access to hospitals. Associate professor at Belhaven University and registered nurse Elise Turner explained that babies are sometimes born on the sides of roads in Mississippi because people may have to drive hours just to reach a physician.

“We have to push the care out to the people,” Turner said. “We’ve been centralizing our medical care for years in the United States.”

In addition, racial and age discrimination have an impact on the US maternal mortality rate. African-American women are three to four times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related issue, according to a US. government report, and teen mothers rarely receive the care they need.

Monica Raye Simpson, the executive director of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, recently spoke to the U.N. and challenged officials there to address the fact that discrimination is still real in the US and plays a major role in health care.

Fortunately, there is good news. States are slowly starting to enact pregnancy check-boxes and implementing new protocols, but the first and biggest step to combatting this problem is opening a dialogue and generating awareness. This is a conversation that everyone needs to have, the panelists emphasized. Women need to be empowered to ask their doctors questions and be made aware of potential complications.

“Use your voice, use your social network because you could potentially save a life,” Simpson said. “Listen to pregnant women. Talk to pregnant women. Love pregnant women,” Turner continued.

Merck has already opened up the lines of communication with its Merck for Mothers program, a 10-year $500 million initiative focused on improving the health of mothers during pregnancy and childbirth.

Yet, more people need to start talking, because as Agrawal noted, “One child that doesn’t get to know the mum that brought them into the world is one child too many.”