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Agencies ask: Why do new mothers die?

By Meriah Doty

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Each day in the United States, two or three women die of pregnancy-related causes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

They are hardly numbers to boast about, says Lynne Wilcox, director of the reproductive health program at the CDC.

"Among industrial developed countries the United States does not rank well," she said.

Lowering pregnancy mortality was a focus of The National Summit on Safe Motherhood: Investing in the Health of Women. The symposium, attracting scientists, clinicians and policy makers, took place September 5-7 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Although the risk of dying of pregnancy-related complications has decreased dramatically in the United States during the past 50 years, it has not declined since 1982, CDC figures show.

Symposium participants agreed "that there's a lot we don't know," Wilcox said after the meeting concluded.

The CDC defines a pregnancy-related death as one that occurs during pregnancy or within one year after a pregnancy, and is caused by pregnancy-related complications. As many as half of them could be prevented with better quality prenatal care, according to the center.

Ethnicity, age make difference

The risk of death due to pregnancy varies greatly among women of different racial and ethnic groups. In particular, black women are four times more likely and Hispanic women are 1.7 times more likely than white women to die of pregnancy-related complications, the CDC found.

Women older than 35 years; who have had several children; who receive no prenatal care; and who are unmarried also run a higher risk of pregnancy-related mortality, the CDC reported.

The findings indicate that public education about pregnancy-related deaths "is long overdue," said former U.S. Rep. Pat Schroeder, who attended the session. The former Democratic lawmaker from Colorado is heading the Safe Motherhood Project for the Institute for Civil Society, one of the summit's sponsors.

Schroeder spoke from personal experience. During the birth of her second child in 1970, she suffered massive hemorrhaging and contracted hepatitis C from blood transfusions. To this day, Schroeder said, the cause of the hemorrhaging is a mystery.

"To think that here we are, 31 years later, and they (now) know absolutely no more about massive hemorrhaging than they did then," Schroeder said.

Other complications

Other mysteries still daunt researchers, too.

For example, CDC investigators are trying to determine why cardiomyopathy, a heart disease characterized by a weakening of the heart muscle, has increased in recent years.

Researchers also are investigating pregnancy mortality's links to domestic violence, and how changes in health care may affect death rates.

Deaths are only part of the picture. The CDC found that among women who become pregnant in the United States each year, at least 30 percent have a pregnancy-related complication before, during, or after delivery.

But resources are limited to support prevention research and public education on safe motherhood, CDC officials say. Without more support, they warn, some of the unanswered questions that confront the CDC will remain just that -- unanswered.

• CDC: Pregnancy-Related Deaths and Maternal Mortality
• AMA: Pregnancy-related deaths
• March of Dimes

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