Southwest Alaska ranks highest for maternal mortality

More than half of all the deaths occurred in Southwestern Alaska. (Maternal Child Death Review Committee/Alaska Department of Health and Social Services)

More mothers die in and right after childbirth in the United States than any other developed country. And that number is growing. Alaska has a lower rate than the national average, but still sees six to 13 maternal deaths each year, according to the Alaska Maternal Child Death Review Committee. Rates are highest among Indigenous mothers in Southwest Alaska.

The Alaska Maternal Child Death Review Committee recently released a review of 16 maternal deaths over the course of a 10-year period in Alaska. More than half of all deaths occurred in Southwest Alaska, and Indigenous mothers made up the most.

“We see disparities by race just like the rest of the country. And in Alaska, that particularly looks like a disparity for Indigenous women,” said Vanessa Verigin, manager of the committee. 

Verigin said 87% of these deaths are preventable. The main causes of preventable deaths are substance abuse, postpartum mood disorders that lead to suicide, and homicide.

“Some of the things that the committee often believes would help prevent those losses of life is social supports and comprehensive perinatal care that includes mental health screening and support,” said Verigin.

It could be support from family and friends, Verigin said. It could also be the ability for patients to receive treatment in the language they’re most comfortable, as well as the availability of mental health services by phone or internet. She said a post-birth home-visiting program could also have positive outcomes for mothers at risk for substance abuse or suicide. 

Dr. Elizabeth Bates, an obstetrics specialist with the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, said YKHC offers these programs and more. Bates added negative outcomes in pregnancies can arise from disparities in public health availability, and YKHC is working to address those disparities in the Y-K Delta.

The U.S. has a long way to go in addressing maternal mortality, Bates said.

“For YKHC, we are trying to promote things like tobacco cessation, addressing gestational diabetes, and then also the social determinants of health, such as access to water. These types of things we’re working to address on a sort of regional public health level.”

The Alaska Maternal Child Death Review study shows Alaska has a long way to go as well: Maternal death rates are on the rise. Since the ’90s, the average number of maternal deaths per year has doubled in Alaska.

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