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U.S. Maternal Deaths Near Highest Rate in 25 Years, Study Finds

U.S. Maternal Deaths Near Highest Rate in 25 Years, Study Finds

May 5, 2014 — Pregnancy- and childbirth-related deaths have risen to nearly the highest rate in 25 years in the U.S., according to a new study in The Lancet, the Washington Post reports.

An estimated 18.5 maternal deaths occurred for every 100,000 births in the U.S. in 2013, totaling nearly 800 deaths, according to the study from the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (Morello, Washington Post, 5/2). The findings represent an increase from 12.4 deaths per 100,000 women in 1990 and 17.6 per 100,000 in 2003 (Painter, USA Today, 5/2).

Comparisons With Other Countries

The U.S. rate is more than two times higher than in Canada and Saudi Arabia and more than three times higher than in the United Kingdom. The U.S. also fell behind China, which rose to 57th out of 180 countries, while the U.S. fell to 60th. The U.S. ranked 22nd in 1990.

In addition, the study found that the U.S. is just one of eight countries in which maternal mortality rates increased during the past 10 years, along with Afghanistan, Greece, and various African and Central American countries.

Meanwhile, other countries have seen significant decreases in maternal mortality rates, including several nations in Latin America and east Asia, according to the study.

Global Rates

Globally, 293,000 women died of pregnancy-related deaths in 2013, compared with 376,000 in 1990.

The study also found that 50% of all maternal deaths worldwide occurred in the time period from at least 24 hours to one year after childbirth, slightly less than the 55% rate in the U.S., where techniques for treating conditions like hemorrhaging and obstructed labor have lessened the risk of deaths during childbirth itself.

Several Possible Reasons for Increase

While the reasons behind the increase in the U.S. are not entirely known, study author Nicholas Kassebaum suggested that an improvement in how maternal deaths are reported could have contributed to the rise. However, he noted that maternal deaths likely are still underestimated and mischaracterized on death certificates.

Further, Kassebaum said that a rise in the number of pregnant women with medical conditions -- like diabetes, hypertension and neurological diseases -- that contribute to higher-risk pregnancies could also be a factor (Washington Post, 5/2).

In addition, the increase could reflect "the performance of the [U.S.] health system as a whole" and "poorer access to essential health care" in comparison with other developed nations, Kassebaum said (USA Today, 5/2).