In 2018, a hospital in Kenya admitted Ashley Muteti, who was 25 at the time, for a month. Muteti, who was over six months pregnant with what was to be her first child, was diagnosed with the hypertension disorder pre-eclampsia. During her hospital stay, Muteti met 10 other expectant or new mothers, seven of whom also had similar hypertension during pregnancy — though, like Muteti, they had no idea what the life-threatening condition was prior to being diagnosed with it.
While these women did receive care, the lack of awareness and health care delay poses a serious problem. Pre-eclampsia causes high blood pressure and can result in internal bleeding, seizures, stroke, premature birth, and more. The condition is one of the leading causes of maternal deaths globally, resulting in the death of 500,000 infants and 76,000 mothers every year.
Muteti survived her pregnancy, but her daughter, Zuri, who was born prematurely, died 49 days after her birth. In her daughter’s memory, Muteti started the Nairobi-based organization Zuri Nzilani Foundation, which seeks to strengthen maternal health care in Kenya by financially and emotionally supporting pregnant people, increasing training opportunities for health care professionals, and running digital education campaigns on the importance of prenatal care.
Muteti’s vision is that just as each country has a task force that addresses issues of conflict or natural disaster, every region will establish a team that focuses on maternal health. “How can we work together to ensure that no mother will die as a result of bringing life into this world?” she asks.
While global maternal death rates have dropped 30 percent in the last two decades, the world is still far from reaching Muteti’s goal.
A recently released WHO report found that the drop in maternal death rates stagnated after 2015. In 2010, there were 95,000 fewer maternal deaths globally than the decade before, but in 2020 there were only 65,000 fewer deaths than there were in 2010. Over 250,000 women died because of pregnancy-related causes in 2020. According to UNICEF, 2.3 million infants died within a month of birth in 2021.
In the Americas, Europe, and the Western Pacific, maternal mortality rates actually increased. The situation in the US is particularly shameful — newly released data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that the maternal mortality rate increased by about 40 percent in 2021 compared to the year before. The rate increased for all racial groups but was disproportionately worse for people of color, with Black mothers dying at rates more than twice as high as white mothers. All told, maternal deaths in the US hit their highest number since 1965.