In this country, maternal and infant death is a health crisis. Rates of maternal death have more than doubled in the past 25 years. And black expectant and new mothers are three-to-four times more likely to die than white women. By comparison, black women die at about the same rate as women in developing countries such as Mexico and Uzbekistan, according to the World Health Organization. And although rates of infant death are down, the United States still ranks 32 out of 35 among the wealthiest nations. The infant death rate among black babies is more than double the rate among white babies.
“When we look at infant death, which is the number of babies who die before their first birthday, there are significant disparities that exist in certain population groups,” says March of Dimes Interim Chief Medical Officer and Senior Vice President, Maternal and Child Health/NICU Innovation Lisa Waddell, MD, MPH. “It’s very clear that we have an urgent health crisis in this country really affecting moms and babies—in particular, moms of color.”
This issue hits close to home for the March of Dimes executive. Her sister’s twin babies died from complications related to preterm birth. “When I get up every day, this work is easy for me,” Dr. Waddell explains. “I don’t want other families to have to live through what [my sister] lived through, losing her babies, one at birth and the other son after almost nine months.”
More than 380,000 babies are born prematurely in the United States each year—some spend weeks in the newborn intensive care unit (NICU) battling related complications. According to March of Dimes, premature birth and its complications are the largest contributors to infant death in the United States and globally. And a closer look at the organization’s data reveals troubling health inequities: Women of color are up to 50 percent more likely to give birth prematurely, and their children can face an infant death rate that is 130 percent higher.
Dr. Waddell says that to close the gap on health inequity and birth, there are important questions that advocates, doctors and policymakers must ask. “Do [expectant mothers] have access to health care and insurance? Do they have transportation to get to their appointments? Do they have access to nutritious foods and safe housing? Have they experienced chronic stress? These are just some of the underlying conditions and experiences that can contribute to poor health outcomes across all population groups,” she explains.
With a solution-oriented approach and passionate staff and volunteers working across the country, March of Dimes aims to do exactly what it did decades ago with polio.
The nonprofit organization was founded in 1938 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to defeat polio, a dreaded disease that claimed the lives and limbs of America’s children in record numbers; it affected an average of 35,000 people in the United States each year.
March of Dimes fought tirelessly and funded research to find a cure for the crippling condition. Doctors and researchers, including Dr. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, raced to develop safe and effective vaccines. Within 17 years, the Salk vaccine was developed, and polio was defeated. The United States has been polio-free for more than 30 years.
March of Dimes has helped millions of babies, and they won’t stop until the health inequities that result in abysmal rates of infant and maternal death are eliminated.
“I would love to see the day when the headline doesn’t read, ‘[Black] women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related issue,’” says Dr. Waddell.
March of Dimes is working to accelerate the use of interventions known to help reduce preterm birth. Group prenatal care, a model of medical care, education and social support shown to reduce preterm birth in women of color by up to 40 percent, has been so successful that March of Dimes is helping to provide that for more pregnant women through a new model called Supportive Pregnancy Care.® March of Dimes is also advocating at the state level for reimbursement for group prenatal care to remove financial barriers for practices that would like to offer this innovative model. March of Dimes is fighting for equal access to progesterone shots for women who’ve had a previous preterm birth; these shots have been proven to reduce the risk of a subsequent preterm birth by one-third. Bringing all the work together is the March of Dimes National Prematurity Collaborative, a powerhouse of more than 300 organizations with national reach to accelerate the implementation of programs and interventions, and address issues of disparities that are negatively impacting so many women and their babies.
The organization’s largest fundraiser, March for Babies, raises money to expand programs and educate medical professionals to make sure that moms and babies get the best possible care, and to fund research to find solutions to the biggest health threats. These events can be found in local communities by anyone looking to stand up for moms and babies.
In total, these interventions and programs serve as change agents in the battle against preterm birth, infant and maternal death and health inequity. Dr. Waddell says she’s proud that March of Dimes boldly champions the health of all moms and babies. And although strides have been made for the cause, the executive says there’s still plenty of work to be done: “I want a headline that says, ‘March of Dimes has led the fight to eliminate preterm birth,’” she expresses. “I believe we can do it. There are things that are known to work. We need to keep working hard and fighting hard for all families no matter where they live or what they can afford. This is about all moms and babies.”
To learn more about March of Dimes and to join the fight for healthy moms and strong babies, visit www.marchofdimes.org/wontstop.