Since 1990, the rate of women dying in childbirth has fallen from 20.7 deaths per 100,000 live births to 12 today in South Korea, and from 18 to 6.5 in Germany. But for the U.S. it’s been a different, much more upsetting story. According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, the amount of women dying in childbirth has more than doubled in the U.S. since 1987, when the CDC first started collecting data through its pregnancy mortality surveillance system. Unfortunately that system has yet to solve why America is one of the few wealthy countries in the world where the death rate during childbirth is rising.
Experts suspect that this is partially because more women are getting pregnant with pre-existing conditions that they often don’t know about. Thirty years ago cardiovascular diseases only accounted for 10 percent of pregnancy-related deaths, but between 1998 and 2005 they rose to the leading cause of death. Cardiovascular diseases are currently the second leading cause of death among pregnant women. While more women getting pregnant at an older age is a factor, there’s been improvement. While women 35 and older accounted for half of all pregnancy related deaths in previous years, they currently only make up a quarter of such fatalities. Conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, and obesity seem to play a bigger role.
One thing the CDC’s pregnancy mortality surveillance system has been able to pinpoint is that there’s an apparent racial component, but they’re not sure why. Black women are 2 to 3 times more likely to die of pregnancy complications than white women, regardless of age, education or similarities in living conditions. The maternal death rate for black women rose from 34 percent in 2006 to 42.8 percent in 2011, while it only rose .7 percent for white women during the same time period.
If you’re wondering what the hell is happening, so is the CDC. That’s why in 2012 they partnered with the public health and advocacy group Association of Maternal & Child Health Programs (AMCHP). Together they’re helping states create review boards to assess childbirth deaths in hopes of reducing them. There are currently active review boards in 38 states, compared to 18 when they started, and they couldn’t come sooner. With additional research showing that as many as one in 3 of these deaths are preventable, they’ve got a lot of work to do.