Basu: Urban mothers and infants deserve better

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Pia Basu, Columnist

Last week, Save the Children ranked the United States 33rd on its 2015 Mother’s Index, an annual list of 179 countries and how they compare in terms of maternal health. The factors taken into consideration for the rankings are: the risk of maternal death over a woman’s lifetime; the well-being of her child measured by the under-five mortality rate; expected years of formal education; economic status measured by GNP per capita; and female political participation. Overall, the report focuses on the plight of urban mothers, with Norway placing at the top of the list and Somalia at the bottom.

The report found that U.S. women have a 1 in 1800 chance of dying as a result of childbirth — worst out of all the fully industrialized countries — and are more than 10 times as likely to die of pregnancy complications as mothers in Poland, Belarus or Austria.

The fact that the United States comes last out of all developed countries is shocking, and there is no doubt that our nation has much to improve on when it comes to maternal health. But looking further into the statistics, there is a significant discrepancy between the experiences of mothers with lower socioeconomic statuses and those of more affluent background.

The Save the Children report provides a striking example of this. “Washington, DC had the highest infant mortality rate at 6.6 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2013,” the report says. “Babies in Ward 8, where over half of all children live in poverty, are about 10 times as likely as babies in Ward 3, the richest part of the city, to die before their first birthday.”

Recognizing and addressing the struggles of women and new mothers in urban lower income neighborhoods is much more important than fixating on our country’s general ranking of 33rd place. There has been some attention brought to the plight of people trying to live amidst poverty and violence in U.S. cities. As a result of these severe urban inequalities, there are places in the United States where the quality of life, especially for new mothers and their infants, is lower than or equivalent to the quality of life in developing nations.

Two Baltimore neighborhoods, Little Italy and Canton — only a seven-minute car ride apart — could not be more different in terms of child mortality. A baby in Little Italy is 10 times more likely to die before the age of 1 than a baby from Canton is. In 2013, 2 percent of babies from Little Italy and Greenmount East died before the age of 1 — a higher rate than those of Honduras, Venezuela or the West Bank. A person who lives in the upscale Baltimore neighborhood of Roland Park has a life expectancy of 84 years, whereas a person living in Seton Hill, one of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods, can be expected to die 19 years earlier at 65. The Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham found that in 15 Baltimore neighborhoods, residents can expect to live shorter lives than they would living under the repressive North Korean regime.

Municipal governments should seriously consider addressing these issues, so as to not perpetuate the trend of new mothers and their infants in lower and higher income parts of the city living increasingly disparate lives. The infant mortality in these lower income neighborhoods doesn’t occur immediately after birth, but rather in the weeks after coming home from the hospital, when lower income babies have less access to quality healthcare. In Europe, regular postnatal visits from nurses is the norm. The Affordable Care Act made some provisions for postnatal home visits, but local governments should enforce this policy — even if it comes as a cost — and make new mothers and babies a priority. More targeted funding toward programs that educate new mothers and allow them access to adequate prenatal care is vital.

There is absolutely no reason why children fortunate enough to be born in one of the wealthiest and most developed countries in the world should suffer from health problems and not live to their first birthday, simply because of the neighborhood and socioeconomic circumstances they were born into. As American political discourse increasingly focuses on urban poverty, our local governments should consider its impact on our nation’s most vulnerable.

Pia Basu is a Medill freshman. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

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