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U.S. pregnancy-related deaths have doubled in the last 30 years

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The U.S. remains at crisis level when it comes to maternal and infant health. That is according to a new report by the nonprofit March of Dimes. More than 700 women die from pregnancy-related causes each year in the U.S., and those deaths have doubled over the last 30 years. To tell us more about these findings, we're joined now by NPR health correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee.

Hi, Rhitu.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So what exactly did this report find?

CHATTERJEE: So the report looked at a couple indicators for infant and maternal health. First, maternal mortality - the rates have continued to rise, and Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women; American Indian and Alaska Native women, twice as likely.

CHANG: Wow. OK, well, that is what the report said about pregnant women. What about infants here?

CHATTERJEE: So for infant health, they looked - the study looked at preterm birth. And even though for the first time in six years there was a slight reduction in overall preterm births, the U.S. still gets a grade of C-minus. That's because the numbers are still quite high compared to other developed nations. And here, too, Ailsa, the risk is much higher for Black and Native women.

I spoke with Dr. Zsakeba Henderson. She's an OB-GYN and the senior vice president at March of Dimes, and she said she's concerned.

ZSAKEBA HENDERSON: And the reason why we're still concerned is because Black and American Indian and Alaskan Native women still remain up to 60% more likely to give birth preterm compared to white women.

CHATTERJEE: And preterm birth is one of the top causes of infant deaths, which is why babies in Black and Native communities are twice as likely as white babies to die before their first birthdays. And those that do survive have higher risks of long-term health challenges.

CHANG: Well, can you just talk about what might be the reasons behind these really stark disparities that we keep on seeing?

CHATTERJEE: Yeah, so there are multiple causes, and most of them are societal. And they've existed for decades. So where you live has a huge impact on what your pregnancy outcome is. Here is Dr. Henderson again.

HENDERSON: Things like transportation, insurance coverage, other things such as your race, ethnicity, income - all of those things do play a role.

CHATTERJEE: So, you know, whether you live in a state that has chosen to have expanded access to Medicaid, for example, that plays a huge role because Medicaid covers 40% of births in the U.S. And even what neighborhood you live in makes a difference because, you know, that determines whether you have access to good health care or even, say, reliable transportation to easily get to a provider.

CHANG: Absolutely. I mean, the really large inequities that you're talking about here - they have been long-standing inequities, right? Like, they have affected so many people's health in this country.

CHATTERJEE: Yup, and that's part of this maternal and infant health story as well. And we also know from past studies that discrimination experienced by Black and Native women also affects their and their baby's health. So take, for example, immigrant women from Africa. When they come here and give birth here in the U.S., their babies are actually just as healthy as white women's. But when you look at the next generation, you start to see worse outcomes because those women grew up experiencing discrimination, and the stress of that affects their own health as well as their baby's health.

CHANG: I am curious though, Rhitu. Did this March of Dimes report address how the pandemic specifically has impacted maternal and infant health?

CHATTERJEE: So the study says that, you know, these preexisting disparities have been magnified in the pandemic - right? - as we've seen with so many other things, and so that's likely to have had an impact. And we also know that over 200 pregnant people have died from COVID-related complications. And according to the CDC, only a third of pregnant people have received a COVID-19 vaccine. But it may take a while before researchers have a real handle on just how all of this has affected maternal and infant health.

CHANG: That is NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee.

Thank you, Rhitu.

CHATTERJEE: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRIAN ENO'S "2/2") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.