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Maternal mortality in the U.S. — it's not just an issue of the developing world

By Michael Rosenblatt, M.D., Executive Vice President and Chief Medical Officer, Merck

In Massachusetts, where I practiced medicine for many years, the death of a mother around the time of pregnancy and childbirth is an exceedingly rare event – but it happens. When people think of maternal mortality, they are most likely to picture the developing world. While it's true that too many mothers die in countries like Ethiopia and Uganda where I recently met with health professionals to explore ways Merck can help, the problem of maternal mortality truly has no geographic boundaries.

Consider that the United States is among the few countries where the rate of women dying during pregnancy and childbirth is rising instead of falling. Despite the fact that the United States is one of the most medically advanced countries in the world, women here have a higher risk of dying of pregnancy-related complications than women in 46 other countries. In addition to the estimated 880 women who die in pregnancy or during childbirth each year in the United States, nearly 52,000 women here suffer from serious complications leading to long-term health problems.

During a visit to New York City, where doctors and hospitals are a short ride from people's homes, I listened to stories that reminded me that pregnant women are dying unnecessarily in places we might least expect. I learned that the maternal mortality rate in New York City is twice the national rate, averaging about 23 deaths for every 100,000 live births. And I met with groups of dedicated physicians in the Bronx who are working every day to change this situation in hospitals and communities where women are dying at exceptionally high rates.

The health workers explained that women in the city's poorest neighborhoods are five times more likely to die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth than those in more affluent neighborhoods. And black and Caribbean women are many times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than the city's white women.

The physicians and community health workers who told us about maternal mortality issues in New York City are among those committing their passion and expertise to find real solutions for women and their families. These professionals are working to help women get the prenatal care they need, and helping women overcome language and transportation barriers. They are also helping to educate women about the importance of a healthy pregnancy for themselves and their babies, about spacing their pregnancies, and even about providing a birth attendant to help support women during childbirth.

As Merck for Mothers embarks on a program to make a sustained impact on reducing maternal mortality and morbidity in the United States, it will be critical that we work with partners that have a deep understanding of pregnant women's needs, and the role of community organizations and clinicians in helping save mothers' lives.