Black mothers are dying in terrifying rates after giving birth, and health officials are concerned that this epidemic is only getting worse.
Earlier this year, the tragic story of a young mother who was also an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention brought to light a subject that is often overlooked, and certainly, according to statistics, in the demographics pertaining to black women.
Shalon Irving had been looking at how limited health options were leading to poor outcomes for their health, according to Rashid Njai, who was her mentor at the CDC. She was a highly educated and committed woman who was trying to focus on how inequality and trauma/violence could make people sick, and how to eliminate those issues.
A new mother, she’d never fully ‘felt right,’ postpartum, and she and her mother, Wanda, constantly went back and forth to doctors and clinicians with concerns about weight gain, leg swelling and other issues often commonly seen in postpartum women.
Told those symptoms were typical of a woman who’d given birth, and never really having anyone take a deeper look at family history and high blood pressure issues, one evening, Shalon just collapsed and died, three weeks after she’d given birth.
Her parents, heartbroken at the loss of their daughter paid for the autopsy themselves, as no one at the hospital found anything ‘unusual enough’ in her death to warrant one, despite being a young woman and mother just collapsing and dying. The autopsy found that she’d died of heart damage, consistent with hypertension, or high blood pressure, and a symptom that Shalon had been complaining about and diagnosed with many times since she gave birth to her daughter, Soleil.
This is a common occurrence in the lives of black mothers in the U.S. According to the CDC, the very agency that Shalon worked for, rates of maternal mortality in the United States are alarming, and particularly for black mothers, who die at three to four times the rate of white mothers. The CDC suggests that a black woman is 22% more likely to die from heart disease than a white woman; 71% more likely to die from cervical cancer; and 243% more likely to die from a pregnancy or childbirth-related cause.
It’s alarming in so many ways — in New York City, black mothers are 12 times more likely to die than white mothers, compared to seven times as high when measured in 2001-2005. In fact, experts with the World Health Organization estimate that black pregnant women and new mothers in the United States die at almost the same rate that women in Uzbekistan or Mexico die, leaving many to wonder why such disparity, and what can be done about it.
Many believe that it’s a disparity in coverage and expectation. Black women are more likely to have no insurance, and as such start prenatal care later than would typically be hoped for. More, when they lose coverage like Medicaid once the baby is born, they have more significant chance of having conditions like diabetes, hypertension and pre-eclampsia, all which could take their lives, but no one monitoring or caring for them.
Other experts believe that a systematic apathy for the conditions a woman in poverty may encounter leads the way for reasoning, when according to NPR and ProPublica data, African-American mothers say they are devalued and disrespected time and time again by practitioners. The mothers say the impression is that there is a cultural divide that prevents practitioners from taking their conditions and/or pain seriously, and that is leading to deaths in disproportionate numbers.
An NPR survey conducted earlier this year showed that 33% of black women feel they are discriminated against when they go to their doctor, and Black Lives Matter co-founder, Patrisse Cullors, said that when she had an emergency c-section in 2016, her doctors disregarded any and all concerns for her, despite her pain and fear.
Michael Lu is a disparities researcher and formerly with the Maternal and Child Health Bureau of the Healh Resources and Services Administration. He says that for black women, the stress of being a black woman in America takes a toll on her while she’s pregnant and during childbirth. This chronic stress can keep her constantly on edge, and the wear and tear on her body can contribute to significant issues in pregnancy and childbirth.
This ‘weathering’ of a woman leads to rates like black women being 49% more likely than white women to deliver their babies prematurely, and doctors see this happening sooner in black women than white women. Dr. Lu believes that clinicians need to be aware that there are risk factors in these women that should be accounted for, despite presentation of symptomology as preventative measure.
When CDC data says that more than half of maternal deaths happen postpartum, and one-third of those a week or more past delivery, it’s important to increase adequate postpartum care, and particulralrly in vulnerable demographics like African-American women.
Dr. Haywood Brown is with Duke University and says that women who have histories of c-sections, pre-eclampsia, diabetes or hypertension before, during or after pregnancy are at greater risks for postpartum issues, and since African-Amercian women have higher C-section rates, as well as rates of hypertension and cardiomyopathies, they are twice as likely to have poor outcomes postpartum.
Shalon Irving’s death, is tragic, but her legacy lives on as the Shalon Irving Memorial (Junior) Scientiest Officer of the Year Award has been created in her name.
That a woman with her education and knowledge and village of peers who work in the very fields that discover these disparities and conditions can have something like this happens shows that there is much to be done for black women in the U.S.