Christy Turlington Burns is a mother, social entrepreneur, model, and founder of Every Mother Counts. As a result of her global advocacy work she was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in 2014, Glamour Magazine’s Woman of The Year in 2013, and one of Fast Company’s Most Creative Minds in 2013. Christy is a member of the Harvard Medical School Global Health Council, an advisor to the Harvard School of Public Health Board of Dean’s Advisors and on the advisory Board of New York University’s Nursing School. She holds a BA from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Studies and has studied Public Health at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. A four-time marathon finisher, Christy resides in New York City where she lives with her husband, filmmaker Edward Burns, and their two children.
Jennifer James: We are impressed that you are helping to spread the word about maternal health and mortality in the Unites States. When did it occur to you that there is a maternal health crisis in America?
Christy Turlington Burns: Soon after experiencing a childbirth complication following the delivery of my first child, I learned that hundreds of thousands of pregnancy and childbirth-related deaths occur around the world every year. Yet, up to 98 percent of those deaths are preventable. Once I knew about these shocking statistics, I had to know why this was happening. This led me to make a documentary film, “No Woman, No Cry,” which examines the state of maternal health in four countries Tanzania, Guatemala, Bangladesh and the United States. While making the film, I learned that while 99% of these global deaths occur in developing countries, we lose three women per day in the U.S. too.
Speaking with Dr. Priya Agrawal, Executive Director of Merck for Mothers, for this latest interview in our Maternal Health Heroes Summer Series, I instinctively realized that she is not only a gifted communicator with a passion for women’s health, but also an infectious advocate for safe motherhood both in the United States and worldwide.
Merck for Mothers, a 10-year, $500 million initiative aimed at reducing maternal mortality, was launched in 2011 and initially set robust goals to reduce women’s deaths during childbirth in low- and middle-income countries. Like many in America, Merck for Mothers failed to initially realize at the time that maternal mortality in the United States is a persistent problem that is steadily worsening. In fact, that line of thinking is quite understandable given most of the 800 women who die every day during childbirth live in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.
The good news for women living in low- and middle-income countries, however, is maternal mortality has drastically been reduced by 45 percent since 1990, a marked change despite the future reductions that still need to occur during the Sustainable Development Goals era. Sadly, in the United States the numbers are not improving. “The United States is the forgotten child when it comes to maternal mortality,” Agrawal mentions. “We learned very quickly that even in our backyards we had to do something. Maternal mortality has more than doubled in the United States. The trend is going in the wrong direction.” Given the amount of money spent on health care in the United States, we experience the highest maternal mortality ratio than any other developed country in the world.
There seems to now be a true movement underway to bring to light the high maternal mortality rate in the United States and the true state of giving birth in America especially for poor women and women of color.
Every Mother Counts, a non-profit organization dedicated to making pregnancy and childbirth safe for every mother and that funds US-based maternal health care providers, just announced the trailer of their new docuseries, Giving Birth in America.
From time to time I like to look back into history and share photos I find in the Library of Congress archives. I have done that previously with breastfeeding, newborn health, and tuberculosis. Today, I am sharing photographs I found of rural midwives in the south.
I have often focused on maternal health and mortality around the globe especially where the deaths rates are the largest, but there is much-needed sustained discussion about maternal mortality in the United States. I have detailed the problem in several previous posts here including:
Periodically I will share news and updates about what is happening in the maternal health space in the United States including the successes and failures to save more women’s lives as well as the key players who are making a difference.