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.
The word is getting out that maternal and newborn mortality are an ever-increasing problem in the United States. As I have written before, the United States has the highest ratio of maternal mortality of any developed country in the world and yet we spend the most on health care globally.
While many (including scientists and health professionals) don’t know concretely why maternal mortality is continuing to rise in the US, the fact remains that the problem is not getting better. In fact, it is incrementally getting worse. In fact, according to recent findings from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation the United States has a maternal mortality rate of 18.5 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in the U.S., up from 12.4 deaths per 100,000 births in 1990.
Companies such as Merck that launched Merck for Mothers and Texts4Baby, for example, are working on innovative ways to reach and inform mothers about how they can be as healthy as possible during and after childbirth. Additionally, grassroots organizations and birthing centers like Florida’s CommonSense Childbirth and Arizona’s The Birthing Project are working in communities to help mothers and their newborns stay alive.