January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, however with all the news surrounding poor maternal health among black women and how black women are 243% more likely to die during childbirth and post childbirth than white women, I found it appropriate to focus this month’s inaugural POC Health Matters ICYMI on black maternal health. After learning about the death of Shalon Irving, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention employee’s death after giving birth to her daughter, my initial thoughts were that we just can’t seem to catch a break and how the American system seems so well designed to fail us in every aspect of our lives. Though appalled and quite frankly disgusted, the ingenious design of this “peculiar system” to continuously fail communities of color is the very reason why I chose a career in public health, what gave life to POC Health Matters, and what motivates me each and every day toward the improved health and well-being of our people and communities.
In recent years, as high rates of maternal mortality in the U.S. have alarmed researchers, one statistic has been especially concerning. According to the CDC, black mothers in the U.S. die at three to four times the rate of white mothers, one of the widest of all racial disparities in women’s health. Put another way, a black woman is 22 percent more likely to die from heart disease than a white woman, 71 percent more likely to perish from cervical cancer, but 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related causes. In a national study of five medical complications that are common causes of maternal death and injury, black women were two to three times more likely to die than white women who had the same condition.
That imbalance has persisted for decades, and in some places, it continues to grow. In New York City, for example, black mothers are 12 times more likely to die than white mothers, according to the most recent data; in 2001-2005, their risk of death was seven times higher. Researchers say that widening gap reflects a dramatic improvement for white women but not for blacks.