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Embolism stalks Black moms with lethal bias

Kimberly Seals Allers Editorial Director | , Black Maternal Health | 5/27/2011, 3:54 p.m.

When New York City issued data about maternal deaths over a five-year period, one culprit in particular leaped out at African-American women: embolism.

Of the 28 women who lost their lives to pregnancy-related embolism between 2001 and 2005, a glaring 82 percent were African-American. None were white women, according to the city's health department report released in June 2010.

Hispanic and Asian pregnant women also suffered higher death rates in New York City from embolisms. Latinas accounted for 14 percent of embolism deaths in the study, and Asian women were 4 percent, according to the report.

An embolism, is a blockage in a blood vessel caused by a blood clot, air bubble, fatty tissue or other substance, and is always a serious matter. While no white women died of it in the New York study, blood generally flows more slowly during pregnancy, making venous thrombosis-the formation of clots inside the veins-a leading cause of pregnancy-related death for all women.

Embolisms are dangerous because they can break free from the wall of the vein and travel to the pulmonary artery,which carries blood from the right side of the heart into the lungs. When blood clots get stuck in the pulmonary artery, they prevent blood from picking up oxygen. This is a medical emergency that causes symptoms similar to a heart attack.

Because the dangers are so well known, remedies are also well established.

"The most important issue in preventing embolisms after labor and delivery are earlyambulation [walking] and use of medical compression stockings," said Dr. Geddis Abelbey, an obstetrician and gynecologist at the New York Hospital in Queens, N.Y. Blood-thinning medications may also be needed.

Most importantly, women who are at risk of embolism need to be identified so that medication can be given at the right time, Abelbey says. But African-American women in NewYork-and to a lesser degree Latinas and Asians in the city-don't seem to be getting identified or treated on par with their white counterparts.

Women's eNews asked a number of physicians and researchers in New York why this was, but no one could an- swer that question or explain the generally higher risks of pregnancy for Black women.

In New York City, African- American women die eight times more often than white women due to pregnancy- related causes. Nationwide, African-Americanwomendie three to four times as often as white women from pregnancy- related causes. Dr. Jo Ivey Boufford, president of the New York Academy of Medicine, discounted obesity, poverty and pre-existing conditions as explanations for the racial differences in New York. She emphasized that, while obesity and pre-existing conditions affect overall maternal health, neither one explains the dramatic gap in the preg- nancy-related risks of African- American and white women.

Khiara M. Bridges isan associate professor of law and anthropology at Boston University and author of a recent book on maternal care and racism at Manhattan's largest and oldest public hospital. Without any biological or medical reason for such a wide disparity, Bridges, a former fellow with the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, suspects that simply being African- American elevates the risk of having inadequate health care.