Despite recent reports about increasing maternal and infant mortality rates here in the United States, I remain thankful for the great strides that have been made in this area of women’s and children’s health in recent decades – especially in the developing world.
When we first arrived in Haiti after the earthquake over a dozen years ago, the maternal and infant mortality rates were tragically high. Mothers giving birth unaided on dirt floors, newborns not given breast milk due to local superstitions, and many other issues contributed to these numbers.
However, thanks to growing knowledge about fetal development and advances in women’s healthcare in recent decades, a few changes and some education for expectant mothers made a world of difference. We saw improvements in maternal mortality rates of more than 66 percent in just a few short years and similarly saw a great many more babies survive their first 1,000 days.
I believe the same tactics employed in Haiti could be used to address the issue here in the United States, which has some of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the developed world, especially in minority communities. These headlines become more real to us after hearing stories such as tennis star Serena Williams’ scare following the birth of her daughter a few years ago and Olympic sprinter Tori Bowie’s death from complications of childbirth earlier this year.
The first and most beneficial step is education at the grassroots level regarding maternal health issues. Community nursing, volunteer education programs, dissemination of written materials, and any other means we can think of must be employed to ensure that pregnant women understand what they need to do to keep their bodies and their babies healthy during pregnancy, along with what danger signs to look out for.
The Commonwealth Fund reported that the U.S. had the highest maternal mortality rates in the developed world, often due to preventable and treatable conditions, such as elevated rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Just as we have discovered in the developing world, many women don’t understand the complications of pregnancy resulting from these issues and the simple steps they can take to mitigate that risk.
Regularly communicating information about the importance of nutrition during pregnancy with the administration of prenatal vitamins is key. Women should be taught not to assume that symptoms such as fatigue and feeling faint or dizzy are normal – these could be indicators of anemia which can be addressed with supplemental iron. This also reduces the risk of post-partum blood loss, one of the leading causes of maternal mortality.
A recent Gates Foundation report highlighted these and several more simple yet highly effective solutions for other common causes of death during and following childbirth. I am grateful for the many organizations working to find these solutions and implement them on a global scale – there is no telling how many lives can be saved with a small amount of education.
As we educate moms about their own health, we must also improve the quality of healthcare available to them. We know this is an accessibility and affordability issue, affecting communities of color disproportionately. I encourage support for several bills currently pending in Congress to address these issues, including the Black Maternal “Momnibus” Act of 2021 and the Protecting Moms Who Served Act.
We must also work to improve higher education opportunities for women, as this helps them secure higher-paying jobs with better healthcare benefits. We must make it easier for women from lower income brackets to pursue higher education, providing long-term benefits to their families and societies as they become leaders in the workplace. I am grateful that so many universities here in the U.S. work to make tuition more affordable through grants and scholarships for those who could not otherwise attend college.
The reports about rising maternal mortality here at home are a wake-up call for those of us who may have been more focused in recent years on health improvements in developing nations where poverty and disease are rampant. But I remain thankful that we have discovered and implemented so many new strategies abroad, and I am hopeful that they can be employed here at home.
This is why I think it is fitting that Thanksgiving is followed so closely by Giving Tuesday. We are grateful for the progress that has been made but should be encouraged to keep giving as there is still so much room for improvement. Let’s be thankful AND generous this holiday season so that we can save more mothers’ and babies’ lives here at home and around the world.
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