Pregnancy-associated deaths, including drug-related deaths and homicide, were up 35% in 2020, compared with prepandemic 2019, new research indicates.
The data also show a 7.1% decrease in pregnancy-related suicides in 2020 from 2019.
The study, led by Claire E. Margerison, PhD, with the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at Michigan State University, East Lansing, included 4,528 pregnancy-associated deaths. The rate of deaths per 100,000 live births from April to December 2020 was 66.9 (95% confidence interval, 63.9-70.1). The comparative rate from April to December 2019 was 49.6. Researchers looked at that time period because the pandemic started in March 2020.
The findings were published online in JAMA Open Network.
Drug-related deaths up 55.3%
During the study period, drug deaths increased 55.3% and deaths from homicide increased 41.2%. Deaths from obstetric and other causes (mainly vehicle crashes) increased 28.4% and 56.7%, respectively, according to Dr. Margerison's group.
“Although pregnancy-associated deaths increased over time, increases from 2019 to 2020 were substantially larger than increases from 2018 to 2019,” the authors wrote.
The findings align with deaths in the general population in that time frame, they added.
Another study – this one looking at all-cause and cause-specific mortality from 2019 to 2020 in recently pregnant women, also published in JAMA Network Open, found significant racial and ethnic disparities in rates and cause of death.
According to the study, “Compared with non-Hispanic White women, mortality rates were three- to fivefold higher among American Indian or Alaska Native women for every cause, including suicide. Likewise, these findings suggest that non-Hispanic Black women experienced significantly higher mortality rates across causes, with the highest rates for homicide.”
Dr. Margerison and colleagues did not try to answer what caused the increases but pointed to the fentanyl epidemic, the murder of George Floyd, and COVID-19–related economic strain as potential stressors. They also suggest fewer screenings during the pandemic may have played a role.
Prevention opportunities missed
“Although pregnancy is considered an opportunity for screening and prevention related to physical, mental, and behavioral health, our data suggest that such opportunities were missed for hundreds of pregnant people during the pandemic,” the authors wrote.
Researchers analyzed cross-sectional U.S. death certificates from Jan. 1, 2018, to Dec. 31, 2020, for female U.S. residents ages 15-44 years. They then obtained the count for live births for the same population and time frame from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention WONDER database.
They were able to identify pregnancy-associated deaths as the 2003 Revised Death Certificate contains a standardized pregnancy checkbox that asks whether the person was pregnant at the time of death, within 42 days of death, or within 43 days to 1 year of death.
Researchers also included deaths with ICD-10 codes linked with death from obstetric causes.
Deaths from overdose, suicide, and homicide are making up large and growing proportions of all deaths during pregnancy and in the first year postpartum, the authors report.
Dr. Margerison and coauthors, in research published in 2022, reported that these causes account for more than one-fifth of all pregnancy-related deaths. They also reported that drug-related deaths and homicides in this population have increased over the past 10 years.
“Substantial racial and ethnic inequities in these deaths exist,” they wrote in that paper.
The authors concluded in the current research: “Our study findings suggest that there is a need for prevention and intervention efforts, including harm-reduction strategies, tailored to pregnant and postpartum women, particularly during times of population stress and decreased utilization of preventive care, such as a pandemic.”
Dr. Margerison and coauthors reported receiving grant support from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development during the study. One coauthor received personal fees from the World Health Organization and Population Reference Bureau outside the submitted work. One coauthor reported receiving grant support from the National Institutes of Mental Health during the study.
*This story was updated on 2/1.