Health

High Maternal Mortality Rate Among Blacks Alarms D.C. Leaders

Black women are dying at higher rates than white women in the District when having babies and city leaders are beginning to acknowledge this.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) hosted her second Maternal & Infant Health Summit on Tuesday at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Northwest to deal with the ongoing crisis of Black maternal mortality.

D.C. Department of Health statistics show that between 2014 and 2016, Blacks consisted of nearly 75 percent of District mothers who died of complications from pregnancy, labor and childbirth. These startling statistics translate on the national level as well, with Black women dying three to four times more than white women through childbirth.

Last year, the District counted 36.1 maternal deaths per 100,000 births, an 11 percent decrease from 40.7 deaths per 100,000 births but still higher than the national average of 20.7, according to statistics from the United Health Foundation.

In the predominantly Black Wards 7 and 8 located east of the Anacostia River, Black women who are pregnant don’t have the benefit of an obstetrics and gynecology unit at the nearest operating hospital, the United Medical Center. The District government shuttered that hospital’s unit in August 2017, forcing most women from those sections of the city to go west of the river to have their children.

“A woman can have a baby at the United Medical Center, but only in the emergency room,” Eric Goulet, director and senior counsel of the D.C. Council’s Committee on Health, said on Sept. 6. “For other types of services, they have to go someplace else.”

D.C. Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt, who participated in the summit, said all District women have access to prenatal care across the city in clinics.

Linda Goler Blount, president and CEO of the Black Women’s Health Imperative, said she supported that approach.

“We shouldn’t get hooked on a hospital,” said Blount, who also spoke at the summit. “We should meet women where they are.”

In regard to the troubling maternal mortality rate particularly among East End women, Nesbitt said her department has a number of initiatives that deal with keeping mothers healthy during the pregnancy process.

“We want to make sure that the mother is as healthy as possible,” Nesbitt said. “That means stopping chronic diseases that tend to be prevalent in that population.”

Bowser said one way to help prevent maternal mortality in the city would be for the council to pass the Better Access for Babies to Integrated Equitable Services Act of 2018, which would, among other things, establish a comprehensive newborn screening program and discharge standards and authorizes penalties for failure to comply with standards or to perform the necessary screens.

Dr. Esther Gamuchirai Madzivire, an obstetrics and gynecology practitioner, bemoaned the state of maternal mortality among Black women.

“Black women, or poor women in general, need access to transportation to get to a hospital,” she said. “They need access to information and they need to be at a hospital that will accept them as patients.

“Not all hospitals want to deal with those types of patients,” Madzivire said. “They don’t have the resources to deal with poorer populations so they try not to treat them.”

Bowser also announced she will introduce the Investigating Maternal Mortalities Amendment Act of 2019, which will mandate immediate reporting of all maternal deaths in the city so that the chief medical officer can assume primary jurisdiction to conduct forensic death investigations and determinations. The chief medical officer’s data on this subject will be transmitted to the District’s Maternal Mortality Review Committee.

“Through this legislation, we can do more to prevent tragedies before they happen,” the mayor said.

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