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Despite the heaviest spending on healthcare, the US has the highest maternal mortality rate among developed nations.
Unfortunately, this historic trend has worsened over time.
To help mitigate the maternal mortality crisis, leaders should strengthen the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), according to Dr. Jamila Taylor, president and CEO of the National WIC Association (NWA).
“WIC’s targeted support can and should be leveraged to reduce the prevalence of risk factors that contribute to adverse maternal health outcomes,” Dr. Taylor said in an NWA press release.
Let’s explore the extent of pregnancy-related deaths in the US, the role of WIC in women’s health, and how you can support the WIC program and health equity in your community.
America’s Maternal Mortality Crisis: An Overview
In 2021, 1,205 women died of maternal causes in the US – an increase from 861 deaths in 2020 and 754 deaths in 2019, according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC).
This significant rise in maternal mortality may be partially due to insufficient healthcare access and financial struggles during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While maternal mortality rates rose for all ethnic groups during the pandemic, women of color, including Latinas, suffered the highest rate increases.
To make matters worse, 84% of pregnancy-related deaths are preventable, CDC reports.
“This dramatic increase in maternal deaths plainly displays a crisis of care within the United States—one that involves a lack of critical interventions for all women, including resources at all levels. It is unacceptable and must be remedied immediately,” Dr. Taylor said in an NWA press release.
Indeed, putting the negative impacts of COVID-19 aside, the devastating US maternal mortality rates are caused by a multitude of factors, including lack of access to hospitals or birth centers offering obstetric care, and lack of access to healthcare coverage for midwifery/doula services and prenatal and postpartum care.
These barriers to maternal healthcare exist nationwide, particularly in states in the southeastern US, where states such as Texas (40.2% Latino) and Florida (26.8% Latino) have not extended or expanded Medicaid coverage.
How Can WIC Improve Maternal Health Outcomes for Latinas and All Women?
WIC is a federal food and nutrition program run by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Established in 1974, WIC is one of the nation’s most successful, cost-effective public health nutrition programs for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and infants and children up to age 5 at nutritional risk.
The federal program plays a vital role in improving maternal health outcomes by providing nutrition support during pregnancy and postpartum periods, which is shown to improve the dietary intake of pregnant and postpartum women.
“Nutrition plays a large role in supporting improved maternal health outcomes,” Dr. Taylor said in an NWA press release.
WIC also serves as a gateway to healthcare to help pregnant women avoid gestational hypertension, pre-term deliveries, and more.
“WIC clinics … [connect] both mothers and children with providers and [ensure] continuity of care,” Dr. Taylor said. “This access to quality health care can help mothers recognize key risk factors early and avoid preventable outcomes.”
This combination of healthcare access and nutrition support is critical for addressing maternal mortality and mitigating racial disparities in maternal health outcomes, according to NWA.
In fact, WIC program participation rates are highest among Latino and Black individuals – two groups that suffer higher rates of pregnancy-related deaths.
“We must address this crisis of care and eliminate the racial disparities that plague maternal health outcomes,” Dr. Taylor said. “NWA is committed to working with all stakeholders to find solutions that create meaningful change, including addressing systemic racism and inequality within the healthcare system, enhancing data collection, and diversifying the WIC workforce to better reflect the communities most harmed by this burgeoning health crisis.”
You Have a Voice for Health Equity!
You can support WIC by learning more about the USDA’s efforts to modernize the federal program and by submitting comments on proposed changes.
One such proposed change to WIC is expanding the ability to shop for food online. This option would help slow the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases and make grocery shopping more convenient for families, including pregnant women and mothers.
You can comment on this proposed change by May 24, 2023.
To see what food and nutrition looks like in your community, enter your county name and get your own Health Equity Report Card from Salud America! at UT Health San Antonio.
You will get local maps and data visualizations on food and nutrition, including:
- food access
- percentage of population with SNAP Benefits
- grocery store rate
Email your Health Equity Report Card to community leaders, share it on social media, and use it to make the case to address food and nutrition insecurity where help is needed most!