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US maternal mortality soars amid widening racial disparities

WASHINGTON (AFP) – The United States (US) maternal mortality rate – already the worst in the industrialised world – rose in 2020 to its highest level in half a century, with Black women three times more likely to die than white women, data showed yesterday.

A National Center for Health Statistics report showed the rate was 23.8 deaths per 100,000 live births, far higher than comparable countries, such as Canada where it was 7.5 per 100,000, according to Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)

Overall, 861 women were identified as having died of maternal causes, which the World Health Organization (WHO) defines as a death while pregnant or within 42 days of the end of pregnancy, from any cause related to or aggravated by pregnancy or its management.

In 2019, the number of deaths per 100,000 live US births was 20.1, while in 2018 it was 17.4.

“We observed increases across a broad number of categories, and Covid-19 likely contributed,” Donna Hoyert, who authored the report, told AFP.

But, she added, the disease was not mentioned in 88 per cent of cases, and was thus only a part of the overall picture.

Despite spending more than twice per person on health than the average of high-income nations, the US has historically remained an outlier on maternal mortality compared to its peers.

Across the world, maternal mortality dropped throughout the 20th Century thanks to advances in medical care such as antibiotics and basic hygiene. But the US has seen backsliding since the year 2000, unlike most other countries.

In fact, the last time the US rate was officially this high was 1968, though a new reporting methodology was introduced in 2018.

“Most of the peer countries have some form of universal healthcare,” Boston University Professor Eugene Declercq, who studies the field, told AFP.

“What we do in the US is we focus on care so intently on the time of birth – and that’s nice – but the fact of the matter is, women enter their pregnancies in a less healthy state because they’re not covered.”