Maternal health in Harris County

By Carolina Boyd

The health of mothers and their children is a reflection of the overall health of a community. Despite the number of hospitals and medical facilities across Harris County, the incidence of maternal morbidity is high in our area.

Maternal morbidity refers to the unexpected, and dangerous, life-threatening complications that arise from pregnancy, labor or delivery. It differs from maternal mortality, which is when a woman actually dies from complications during pregnancy or within 42 days of birth.

According to a report from the Houston Endowment, Harris County’s rate of severe maternal morbidity in 2015 was 2.4 percent, meaning there were 238 cases for every 10,000 deliveries.

The report found many of the same risk factors previously identified in maternal mortality investigations played a role in the morbidity rate. Those risk factors include having high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and/or mental illness. If a woman has just one of these illnesses, her risk for developing complications will increase.

Left untreated, these conditions can be the source of severe complications at childbirth or after delivery, threatening the lives of women. The highest rates of life-threatening complications were found in black women, Medicaid recipients, mothers in their early teens and over 40, and those with other underlying conditions.

One marker of a woman’s health in both the pre-pregnancy stage and pregnancy is her body mass index (BMI). Women who are in the obese BMI range are at a higher risk of pregnancy complications. Those risks increase for morbidly obese women. According to the March of Dimes, being overweight or obese during pregnancy can lead to high blood pressure, blood clotting problems, as well as preeclampsia, which can cause a woman’s organs not to work properly

Obesity also increases a woman’s risk for diabetes.  This disease can cause problems during pregnancy for both expectant moms and their developing fetuses. High glucose levels before pregnancy and into the early weeks of pregnancy (when a baby’s organs are developing) can increase the risk of birth defects.

Proper care before and during pregnancy can help to prevent dangerous health problems for the many women in Harris County, who are at risk for pregnancy-related complications.