Maternal death rates increased in 2021, according to information released Thursday by the National Center for Health Statistics.
“We have seen rising rates of maternal mortality in this country,” said Dr. Bronwen Kahn, a maternal fetal medicine specialist with HealthONE and Obstetrix of Colorado, part of Pediatrix Medical Group.
The World Health Organization describes maternal mortality as “the death of a woman while pregnant or within 42 days of termination of pregnancy, irrespective of the duration and the site of the pregnancy, from any cause related to or aggravated by the pregnancy or its management, but not from accidental or incidental causes."
The statistics show an increase from 23.8 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2020, to 32.9 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2021.
“Some of the rise may, in fact, be related to COVID, which is kind of the most obvious factor,” Dr. Kahn said. “There are also indirect effects of COVID.”
This includes more difficult access to care during the pandemic, a general fear of medical sites for concern of infection, and other conditions or problems worsened by social isolation.
The CDC noted that these mortality rates also increase with maternal age. The rate for women aged 40 and over was 6.8 times higher than the rate for women under 25.
“Women over 40 are at higher risk for hypertensive complications, for hemorrhage….and all the other sorts of medical co-morbidities as well,” she said.
The recent statistics from the center also showed that the maternal mortality rate for non-Hispanic Black women was 2.6 times the rate for non-Hispanic White women.
“There is profound race disparity within maternal mortality,” Dr. Kahn said. “Black women who have the highest levels of education still have higher maternal mortality ratios and risks than white women who have not graduated from high school.”
Dr. Kahn said these statistics don’t paint the full picture of maternal mortality rates.
“I fear that these numbers may actually be underreported, which is even more devastating to think about,” Dr. Kahn said.
“These numbers that were just released today, which are devastating and do show a very significant increase over previous years,...are base on coding,” she explained.
These codes may exclude indirect deaths due to substance overdoses, suicide, or car crashes, for example. She also explained that maternal mortality causes can be prevalent more than 42 days after a pregnancy has ended, which is beyond the time frame included in the CDC statistics.