U.S. maternal mortality hits highest rates since 1965: report

Maternal deaths in the United States have reached their highest rate in nearly six decades, a new report has revealed.

The number of mothers who died during or shortly after pregnancy rose to 1,205 in 2021 for a maternal mortality rate of 32.9 deaths per 100,000 live births, the National Center for Health Statistics announced Thursday.

The new figures marked a 40% increase from 861 maternal deaths in 2020 and 754 in 2019.

The troubling statistics are the highest in the country since 1965, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The CDC lists the leading causes of pregnancy-related death as hemorrhage, cardiovascular disease, and infection or sepsis.

A doctor uses a hand-held Doppler probe on a pregnant woman.
Maternal mortality is a serious public health issue in the United States.

Experts say COVID-19 also exacerbated existing dangers, as pregnant patients were at increased risk of serious illness or death, as well as premature delivery and other complications. These dangers increase if the patient is not vaccinated.

“It’s hard for us to speculate, but we suspected the pandemic would have an unfortunate effect on maternal mortality,” Stacey D. Stewart, president and CEO of March of Dimes, told the WSJ in February.

Maternal deaths among black patients remain particularly high compared to other groups, with a rate of 69.9 deaths per 100,000 live births, or 2.6 times that of non-Hispanic white patients.

Bar graph of maternal mortality by age in the United States.
Maternal mortality by age in the United States.
National Center for Health Statistics

Dr. Veronica Gillispie-Bell, obstetrician-gynecologist at Ochsner Health in Louisiana, told NPR this week that the racial gap was due to social factors.

“We need to address the social factors that are either barriers to accessing care or worsen your health early in pregnancy,” she said.

“It’s not just about doctors in the hospital.”

A bar graph of maternal mortality by race.
Maternal deaths are particularly high among black patients.
National Center for Health Statistics

Louisiana is one of the states currently working with the CDC to address maternal deaths by reducing racial disparities and implicit biases in health care, Gillispie-Bell noted.

“It’s not something that happens overnight. It will take some time to see the benefits of this change,” she explained.

Overall, maternal deaths are also much higher in the United States than in any other high-income country. OECD health statistics reported, for example, that Australia, Austria, Israel, Japan and Spain all hovered around 2-3 deaths per 100,000 births in 2020.

A sign that reads "Strong babies, healthy moms."
Activists and scientists are trying to prioritize the troubling question.

In fact, maternal mortality rates in the United States increased by 78% between 2000 and 2020 while they fell in most other countries, the WHO said.

“There is simply no reason for a wealthy country to have low maternal mortality,” Eileen Crimmins, professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California, told NPR.

Donna Hoyert, a health scientist at the National Center for Health Statistics who authored the new reports, told the outlet that preliminary data suggests pregnancy-related deaths may have peaked in 2021 and declined last year.

“So hopefully that’s the peak,” she said.

The report comes after new data showed the United States had fallen compared to 200 other countries in a life expectancy report, falling 40 places since 1950 to 53rd place.

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