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Life-threatening Birth Complications More Common in Minorities

Posted: October 24, 2018

On Valentine’s Day 2017, Ebony Boyd picked up some holiday doughnuts as she headed to work feeling “blessed and happy,” she recalls. She was six months pregnant and excited to be having a baby whom she and her boyfriend had already named.

But a few hours after she got to work, Boyd, 36, started feeling excruciating pain. Her doctor suggested that she head for a hospital emergency room. Once there, “they checked for my baby’s heartbeat and there wasn’t any,” Boyd said. Boyd barely had a chance to begin to grieve her loss when she started hemorrhaging badly. Her blood pressure skyrocketed. Two transfusions later, Boyd started to stabilize.

But just as she was about to be discharged from the hospital three days later, she developed a pulmonary embolism. “They told me if I had been sent home I might not have made it to the next day,” sBoyd, who lives in the Bronx, said in a recent interview.

Boyd could easily be one of the data points in a new study released on Wednesday. It found that African- American women like her, along with women of other minority groups, are far more likely to experience severe, life-threatening complications related to giving birth than white women.

“It’s important that we identify racial and ethnic minority women with chronic conditions as a high-risk group,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Lindsay Admon, an assistant professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Michigan. “The trends we’re seeing now are startling. They’ve gotten some national attention directed towards the health of new mothers.”

The big concern is maternal death, which also hits minorities harder than whites. Deaths are hard to study, though, because there aren’t that many of them each year. So Admon and her colleagues focused on severe, life-threatening complications that could kill a woman if she didn’t get the right care at exactly the right time. The researchers figured that by scrutinizing more than 40,000 severe complications they might see ways that the care of moms-to-be could be improved and deaths related to delivery reduced.

Recent studies that have found mortality rates due to pregnancy complications on the rise have spurred some officials into action. This week, a bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to Health Secretary Alex Azar saying, “This troubling trend makes the United States an outlier among every other developed country.”

The researchers found that non-Hispanic black women had a 70 percent higher rate of major birth-related problems compared with non-Hispanic white women. Compared with non-Hispanic white women, Hispanic, Asian or Pacific Islander, and American Indian or Alaska Native women also had higher rates of severe complications.

“Recognizing that these disparities exist, it behooves us to figure out how to decrease the disparities,” said Dr. Alan Peaceman, chief of maternal-fetal medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and chief of obstetrics at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “The numbers here are concerningly high.”


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