Concern over the maternal mortality rate here in the U.S. has persisted for years, with outside reports and statistics providing a worrying glimpse at this widespread issue. But the United States’ own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) went more than a decade without releasing official figures into the matter.

That changed recently, with the CDC publishing its first U.S. maternal mortality estimate since 2007. The results are both discouraging and troubling.

The US is last among similarly wealthy countries

According to the CDC’s National Vital Statistics Report, released Jan. 30, 2020, the United States had a maternal mortality rate of 17.4 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2018. That means an estimated 658 women died that year either during their pregnancy, while giving birth, or within 42 days of the birth.

The United States’ maternal mortality rate is much higher than many people expect. Overall, the U.S. ranks 55th, just between Russia and Ukraine. If measured only against the nine other similarly wealthy countries across the globe, the United States is last.

Two sub-groups have particularly high maternal death rates: Women over the age of 40 (81.9 deaths per 100,000 births) and black women (37.1 deaths per 100,000 births).

Possible factors

The CDC’s National Vital Statistics Report does not explore potential causes, but previous research offers clues. Lack of health insurance, poverty levels and poor access to prenatal care are believed to be factors.

One estimate has found about half of all maternal deaths in the U.S. are preventable, and potentially due to medical malpractice. That might include:

  • Medication errors
  • A missed or incorrect diagnosis
  • Doctors dismissing or ignoring a mother’s comments
  • Treatment mistakes

These mistakes can lead to or worsen serious complications, such as hemorrhaging or preeclampsia – both of which can be fatal if not properly addressed. When errors occur, it is mothers and their loved ones that can pay the tragic price.