Tackling the Maternal Health Problem in America

Working on Maternal Health in America
When I travel and write about the global maternal health crisis I typically concentrate on the world’s poorest countries. In those countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, that is where we see the highest maternal mortality rates (MMR). But right here in the United States, there are 18.5 deaths of women during pregnancy and childbirth per 100,000 live births. That is around 1751 American women per year according to the Centers for Disease Control. That number is from 2011 and it has gone up since then. That number may seem low when you think about poor countries’ MMR, but that number is astronomically high when compared to other industrialized countries. In fact, the United States has the highest maternal mortality rate of any industrialized country in the world, and yet we as Americans spend the most on health care.

Over the past twenty years, the maternal mortality rate in the United States has increased steadily and sharply. In 1997, for example, the MMR in the US was 7.2 per 100,000 live births. Now, it has more than doubled. In part, some of the increase is due to better data acquisition and a general unhealthy population. But that doesn’t account for all of the increase.

Tackling maternal health is always tricky because the problem perpetually seems larger than the solutions. Last week I went to Orlando  briefly to meet Jennie Joseph, one of the most outspoken midwives in the country working on the transformation of maternal health in the US, especially for low-income women of color. She has a birthing center, CommonSense Childbirth, where she takes on clients with the help of funders like Every Mother Counts and also teaches midwifery, lactation classes, and provides doula training. Watching Jennie with her clients was breathtaking. Even though I saw her interact outside of her birthing center you can tell she provides amazing care for her clients. The stories I heard about the traditional medical some of these women received was astounding. I even have my own stories to tell about my treatment when I was pregnant so many years ago, but now I am concentrating on the stories of mothers who are experiencing pregnancy and childbirth now.

Which brings me to why I ultimately went to Orlando. For a few years now I have been working with photographer and video-maker Paolo Patruno on small projects, mainly putting words to the photos and videos he makes about maternal health and young motherhood. Now, I am collaborating with him on his latest maternal health project, The American Dream, that will look at the rates of maternal mortality in America and the way in which low-income women receive maternal care in the US. He took the photo above where he was filming interviews with mothers with new babies. I talked with some of the women along with Jennie Joseph (far right). I will be headed back down to Orlando to speak with more mothers and can’t wait to speak to them. Honestly, that’s my favorite thing to do when I travel and collect stories.

It was great to finally meet Paolo after virtually collaborating for so many years! I can’t wait to keep you up-to-date on his upcoming documentary and my articles.


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