In the United States, black women are 2.5 to 4 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women. For every 100,000 live births, about 37 black mothers do not survive, compared to about 14 white mothers.
“The country is in a crisis when it comes to maternal health,” says Ndidiamaka Amutah-Onukagha, Julia A. Okoro Professor of Black Maternal Health at Tufts University School of Medicine. “The majority of black maternal deaths are completely preventable.”
Addressing these disparities is central to the mission of Tufts University’s new Center for Black Maternal Health and Reproductive Justice (CBMHRJ), which will be led by Founder-Director Amutah-Onukagha, who is also Associate Professor and Assistant Dean. of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine. She made the announcement of the new center at the fifth annual Black Maternal Health Conference, hosted by the School of Medicine.
There is growing recognition that structural racism contributes to negative maternal health outcomes among Black women. Historical and ongoing systematic oppression leads to diminished socio-economic opportunities and increased exposure to social and environmental risks, which impact access and quality of care, as well as increased stress. Compared to white women, black mothers experience higher rates of hypertensive disorders during pregnancy, such as preeclampsia and eclampsia, as well as higher rates of hemorrhage and cardiomyopathy.
“The opportunity to create and launch a National Center for Black Maternal Health and Reproductive Justice at this critical time will not only honor the work around maternal health equity, but will also position Tufts as a leader in this. domain,” she says. “The center’s vision is to protect the black birthing experience by advocating for quality, equitable and respectful care during childbirth.”
Research will be a central pillar of the center’s organization, as well as community work and policy, says Amutah-Onukagha, who is one of six principal investigators nationwide funded by the National Institutes of Health to investigate disparities race during pregnancy. -related complications and deaths. She stresses the importance of learning from the community – what do they need, what have they been through – and allowing this to inform research at the center and policy work at local levels and national.
Tackling maternal mortality and morbidity in the United States is a key priority for the Biden administration, and in December Vice President Kamala Harris issued a national call to action, urging the public and private sectors to trying to improve health outcomes for parents and infants. The administration also made new commitments to support safe pregnancies and deliveries, and reduce complications and mortality in the year after birth. Amutah-Onukagha says the center will provide a platform to access newly allocated federal funds to address maternal health disparities.
“The center seeks to create a world where black women can safely and comfortably enjoy equitable access to health services without having to face discrimination in medical settings,” says Helen Boucher, acting dean of the School of Medicine and Tufts Medicine. “Not only is this a critical societal need, but I am also proud that this mission is fully aligned with the central themes of the School of Medicine’s strategic plan, which include a commitment to anti-racism, inclusion, health justice and advancing population health.
Training health professionals is another major effort for the new center – and not just training clinicians, but also social workers, public health workers, nurses, and more. Amutah-Onukagha is also the Director and Founder of the Maternal Outcomes for Translational Health Equity Research (MOTHER) Lab, through which 35 undergraduate to postdoctoral fellows are trained to become the next generation of academic maternal health activists. The MOTHER Lab will become a unit within the center.
“We intend to serve not just the greater Boston area, but the country. The work that comes out of this center will shape federal health legislation and hopefully impact policy in ways that will save lives,” said Amutah-Onukagha. “It’s the best return on investment.”