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This Pregnancy-Related Condition Kills Half A Million Babies, But Isn’t Getting Much Funding

For the leading cause of pregnancy-related deaths, there's been little progress.

Preeclampsia, the leading cause of pregnancy-related deaths in the U.S., is on the rise with a 63 percent increase in cases since 1980, a new study suggests. Researchers found that the condition, characterized by dangerously high blood pressure during pregnancy, costs the healthcare system roughly $2.18 billion. And, from an epidemiological perspective, preeclampsia is growing at a rate more rapid than diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s—all conditions that receive significantly more funding for research and treatment.

“There have been some recent, high-level profiles of the burden of maternal morbidity,” coauthor on the study Dr. Anupam B. Jena of Harvard Medical School told Fatherly. “It occurred to us that there wasn’t a lot out there epidemiologically about the disease burden or the cost burden.”

But quantifying the cost burden of preeclampsia proved challenging, Jena says, because most public health organizations only track the number of cases—not the cost. In an attempt to collect robust data, Jena and her colleagues pieced together information from five different national datasets. The combined statistics included more than two million maternal-infant births that involved preeclampsia, between 2008 and 2011.

pregnant woman receiving ultrasound

The study suggests that, since 1980, preeclampsia cases have increased from 2.4 percent of pregnancies to 3.8 percent of pregnancies. “In absolute terms, it’s a modest increase but in relative terms, it’s nearly doubled,” Jena says. “That’s a lot of moms and a lot of kids. And, of course, a lot of money. In the first year postpartum, the overall cost of preeclampsia tops out at $2.18 billion. Since the effects of preeclampsia can cripple both the mother and child even many years down the road, those numbers only climb after that.

It follows, then, that one of the most obvious limitations to the research is that we still don’t know how much preeclampsia costs after the first year. Another limitation, Jena acknowledges, is that the entire study is based on information parsed from multiple sources. Piecemeal approaches to epidemiology tend to be less robust.

But it’s a good start, and a timely one. There’s no cure for preeclampsia, and the condition claims the lives of 76,000 mothers and half a million infants worldwide each year. And yet, “compared to other diseases like diabetes or heart disease, those diseases have had much more innovation,” Jena says. She says it is crucial that governments and private agencies fund more research that could help mitigate the costs of preeclampsia.

“Most women and men enter into a pregnancy hoping for the best possible outcome, and for a vast majority that’s fortunately what occurs,” Jena says. “But the absence of innovation is alarming.”