The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is financing new centers for research into maternal health in an attempt to end the epidemic of deaths among pregnant women and new moms in the US — home to the highest rate of maternal mortality in the world.
In 2021, the latest year data is available, more than 1,200 women who were either pregnant or had been pregnant within the previous 42 days died. This represents a 40 percent increase from the year prior, making the US the most dangerous country among developed nations for pregnant women and new moms.
The figures, released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), marked a six-decade high in maternal deaths in the US, with black women nearly three times more likely to die than their white counterparts.
In an effort to protect these woman, the NIH has announced it is awarding $24 million in first-year funding to establish 10 centers across the country dedicated to studying and preventing maternal mortality.
The project, named the Maternal Health Research Centers of Excellence, will focus on populations most at risk of suffering health inequalities, including ethnic minorities, people living in poverty, trans people and those with disabilities.
The NIH will award several grants over the next few years totaling $168 million, so long as the funds are available.
Pregnant black women are nearly three times more likely to die in the US than their white counterparts
Every year, tens of thousands of women in America experience serious complications related to pregnancy and childbirth, including high blood pressure, diabetes and mental health conditions.
While the US is a high-income country, the fact that health coverage is not universal means that those who are uninsured receive inadequate care.
Researchers say there is also an unintentional bias among medical providers which negatively affects Black women in terms of the healthcare they receive.
Dr Diana Bianchi, director of NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, said: ‘The magnitude and persistence of maternal health disparities in the United States underscore the need for research to identify evidence-based solutions to promote health equity and improve outcomes nationwide.’
She said the new research centers will ‘generate critical scientific evidence’ to ‘help guide clinical care and reduce health disparities during and after pregnancy.’
The Maternal Health Research Centers of Excellence will include 10 research centers, a data innovation and coordinating hub and an implementation science hub.
The institutions will work together to design and carry out research projects to address the different factors that affect the maternal mortality rate.
They will join forces with state and local public health agencies, community health centers and faith-based groups.
According to the figures from the CDC, 1,205 pregnant women died in 2021, up from 861 in 2020 and 754 in 2019.
A previous report by the Government Accountability Office stated at least 400 maternal mortalities in 2021 listed Covid-19 infection as a contributing factor — making up the bulk of the increase from previous years.
Pregnancy leaves women more vulnerable to infectious diseases as their heart, lungs and kidneys already have to work harder during pregnancy.
During the pandemic, it was discovered that Covid can also damage the placenta, cause blood clots more easily and increase the risk of a pre-eclampsia — a potentially deadly complication caused by high blood pressure.
The condition, which typically involves high blood pressure and protein in the urine, affects around six percent of UK and US pregnancies.
Most cases are mild, but pre-eclampsia may lead to serious complications for the mother and baby if not treated in time.
Symptoms include severe headache, stomach pain and nausea, which women may mistake for ‘normal’ pregnancy symptoms and thus not seek medical help until the condition becomes severe.
In addition to health and medical problems, experts added burnt out hospital staff and high levels of vaccine hesitancy among pregnant women worsened the crisis.
Many doctors and nurses were stressed after being inundated with Covid patients during the pandemic, meaning they spent less in-person time with their patients and many pregnant women were afraid to receive Covid vaccines because of limited or false information surrounding the vaccines’ effects on fetuses.