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Giving birth in the US is more dangerous than you think
01:37 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

The mortality rate of pregnant and recently pregnant women in the United States rose almost 30% between 2019 and 2020, according to a new study.

The study, published Friday in JAMA Network Open, analyzed information on 4,535 deaths collected by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics from 2019 to 2020. The researchers looked at deaths in women who were pregnant or were within a year of giving birth.

The women’s mortality rate from any cause increased from 54 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2019 to 70 in 2020, the researchers found. Mortality rates increased 22% for pregnancy-related causes and 36% for nonpregnancy causes.

Causes not related to pregnancy accounted for more than half of the women’s deaths in 2020, the researchers say. Accidental drug poisoning was the most common, followed by motor vehicle collisions and homicide, with mortality rates of 12.2%, 5.9% and 5.5%, respectively. The mortality rate involving suicide did not significantly change.

The study authors also identified significant racial and ethnic disparities. Mortality rates were three to five times higher among American Indian or Alaska Native women for every cause except suicide. Black women had similarly high mortality rates across all causes, with 5.3 times higher risk of dying from homicide.

“One of the main messages, I think, from this is really that there’s a much bigger societal problem facing pregnant women and new mothers who are in that postpartum period where, you know, that’s a very stressful time of life. What this points to is that there’s particular vulnerability in this population to some of these other social factors,” said Jeffrey Howard, an author of the study and associate professor of public health at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

He says the research is consistent with increasing death rates among pregnant and postpartum women, but says this trend was exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. The pregnancy-related mortality rate increased by 4.4% annually from 2015 to 2019 compared with 29% from 2019 to 2020.

What Howard finds especially striking is the number of deaths not due to pregnancy.

“If you go back to 2015, most of the deaths in this population were from pregnancy-specific causes. I think it was around 60% and 40% were from other causes. By 2020, it’s kind of flip-flopped where the majority of the deaths are coming from other causes, not pregnancy-specific,” Howard said.

The findings can be largely attributed to the stressors brought on by the pandemic, he said. Rebecca Lawn, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, agrees.

The findings “really just highlight and bring into discussion factors that you don’t traditionally think of with mortality of pregnant women,” said Lawn, who was not involved with the research. “And I think it’s the same with the pa