By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
Morehouse and Jackson State will soon operate two of the 10 Maternal Health Research Centers of Excellence that will stretch from California to New York, thanks to a recent $24 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.
The new research centers will open at a time when more women are dying from pregnancy-related causes for several reasons. First, women are older when they give birth. The average age for a new mother is 30. The second reason is that new mothers, at this age, may have chronic but untreated health issues such as diabetes and heart disease. Each year in the U.S., 700 to 900 women die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes, and some 65,000 nearly die.
Black women are increasingly dying from pregnancy-related causes. In 2021, the Black maternal death rate stood at 69.9 deaths per 100,000 live births in the U.S.
This past April, three-time Olympic medalist Tori Bowie, age 32, died while she was in labor, alone, in her Winter Garden, Fla. home (which was in foreclosure and did not have lights or running water).
Her death not only aimed a spotlight on the fact that Black women are three times more likely than White women to die from childbirth-related causes such as eclampsia, hemorrhaging, and high blood pressure – her death also highlighted the impact that mental health issues may play in pregnancy-related deaths. Bowie was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental-health condition that causes extreme mood swings. When she died, she was eight months pregnant and weighed 96 pounds, according to news reports.
According to NBC News, “Officials said they believe Bowie’s mental health played a role in how she handled what became an increasingly difficult pregnancy, one she dealt with without much assistance from friends, family or medical professionals.”
Neighbors saw Bowie sleeping on the floor at a local recreation center and another time, sleeping on a bench with groceries near her feet at a park near her house. According to the autopsy report, “possible complications” contributing to Bowie’s death include “respiratory distress and eclampsia.”
And this where the 10 newly funded Maternal Health Research Centers of Excellence come in. Specifically, the newly-launched centers will gather and distribute data, in an effort to help guide clinical care and reduce pregnancy-related complications and deaths. The grants are expected to last seven years and total an estimated $168 million, pending the availability of funds.
It is part of the NIH’s IMPROVE initiative that was launched in 2019 in response to high rates of pregnancy-related complications and deaths. The centers of excellence will include 10 research centers, a data innovation and coordinating hub and an implementation science hub, according to a recent NIH press release.
“Together, these institutions will work to design and implement research projects to address the biological, behavioral, environmental, sociocultural and structural factors that affect pregnancy-related complications and deaths,” the NIH noted. “They will focus on populations that experience health disparities, including racial and ethnic minorities, socioeconomically disadvantaged populations, those living in underserved rural areas, sexual and gender minority populations and people with disabilities.”
The 10 centers are located at Avera McKennan Hospital, Sioux Falls, S.D.; Columbia University, New York City; Jackson State University, Miss.; Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee; Michigan State University, East Lansing; Morehouse School of Medicine, Atlanta; Stanford University; Tulane University, New Orleans; University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Oklahoma City, and the University of Utah, Salt Lake City.