Each year, about 50,000 women in the United states experience severe pregnancy complications that can cause serious health consequences. About 700 women die during pregnancy or in the year following childbirth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
African-American women are affected the hardest. Among Black women, death rates from pregnancy-related causes are three times higher than White women.
Black Maternal Health Week, recognized every year from April 11-17, raises awareness of racial disparities in maternal health and aims to enhance the need for community, clinical, research and policy-driven solutions to address Black maternal health issues.
A number of factors contribute to variations in maternal health between Black and White women, including the prevalence of chronic health conditions.
“Black women are more likely to have high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease when they become pregnant than White women,” says Ronald Salzetti, MD, an OB-GYN at Scripps Clinic Rancho Bernardo and Scripps Clinic Rancho San Diego. “Both of these conditions can raise the risk of dangerous pregnancy complications such as preeclampsia, a severe rise in blood pressure that can lead to life-threatening seizures.”
Black women also have a higher risk for gestational diabetes, a type of diabetes that develops during pregnancy. In gestational diabetes, the placenta that supplies nutrients to the growing baby produces hormones that interfere with insulin production, so blood sugar levels are not properly controlled. As a result, the mother’s blood glucose levels rise, and the excess sugar in her blood is passed on to the baby. Gestational diabetes can increase the likelihood of high blood pressure or preeclampsia.
In addition, Black women have a higher risk of excessive bleeding after childbirth. A medical emergency known as postpartum hemorrhage can lead to potentially life-threatening blood loss.
Disparities exist after pregnancy as well. Postpartum depression affects about 10 to 20% of women who have given birth. The percentages of women who get help for postpartum depression are already very low among White women at 8%, but even lower among Blacks at 4%.
Access to quality medical care also contributes to the disparities. Research suggests that racial and ethnic minorities experience a lower quality of health services and are less likely to receive even routine medical procedures, including prenatal care.
Two of three pregnancy-related deaths are preventable. By taking steps to learn about the risk factors and warning signs of complications, pregnant women of all races and ethnicities and their partners, families and friends can help reduce the risks and prevent these tragedies.
Here are some of those steps:
Attend all of your prenatal appointments and screening exams.
If something doesn’t feel right at any point in your pregnancy, call your health care provider. Don’t write it off or wait until your next appointment.
Know the signs that may indicate a potentially life-threatening complication. Seek immediate care if you experience:
- Severe headache
- Extreme swelling of hands or face
- Difficulty breathing
- Heavy vaginal bleeding or discharge
- Vision changes
- Fever of 100.4 degrees or higher
- Severe pain in your belly
- Severe swelling, redness or pain in your leg or arm
- Overwhelming tiredness
Work with your health care provider to manage any chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, that can raise the risk of complications during pregnancy
“It’s especially important for women to speak up if they have a concern or problem, and keep speaking up until you have an answer,” says Dr. Salzetti. “You know your body better than anyone else, and you deserve the best possible care.”