Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999: Healthier Mothers and Babies




Despite the dramatic decline in infant and maternal mortality during the 20th century, challenges remain. Perhaps the greatest is the persistent difference in maternal and infant health among various racial/ethnic groups, particularly between black and white women and infants. Although overall rates have plummeted, black infants are more than twice as likely to die as white infants; this ratio has increased in recent decades. The higher risk for infant mortality among blacks compared with whites is attributed to higher LBW incidence and preterm births and to a higher risk for death among normal birthweight infants (greater than or equal to 5 lbs, 8 oz [greater than or equal to 2500 g]) (18). American Indian/ Alaska Native infants have higher death rates than white infants because of higher SIDS rates. Hispanics of Puerto Rican origin have higher death rates than white infants because of higher LBW rates (19). The gap in maternal mortality between black and white women has increased since the early 1900s. During the first decades of the 20th century, black women were twice as likely to die of pregnancy-related complications as white women. Today, black women are more than three times as likely to die as white women.

During the last few decades, the key reason for the decline in neonatal mortality has been the improved rates of survival among LBW babies, not the reduction in the incidence of LBW. The long-term effects of LBW include neurologic disorders, learning disabilities, and delayed development (20). During the 1990s, the increased use of assisted reproductive technology has led to an increase in multiple gestations and a concomitant increase in the preterm delivery and LBW rates (21). Therefore, in the coming decades, public health programs will need to address the two leading causes of infant mortality: deaths related to LBW and preterm births and congenital anomalies. Additional substantial decline in neonatal mortality will require effective strategies to reduce LBW and preterm births. This will be especially important in reducing racial/ethnic disparities in the health of infants.

Approximately half of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended, including approximately three quarters among women aged less than 20 years. Unintended pregnancy is associated with increased morbidity and mortality for the mother and infant. Lifestyle factors (e.g., smoking, drinking alcohol, unsafe sex practices, and poor nutrition) and inadequate intake of foods containing folic acid pose serious health hazards to the mother and fetus and are more common among women with unintended pregnancies. In addition, one fifth of all pregnant women and approximately half of women with unintended pregnancies do not start prenatal care during the first trimester. Effective strategies to reduce unintended pregnancy, to eliminate exposure to unhealthy lifestyle factors, and to ensure that all women begin prenatal care early are important challenges for the next century.

Author(s): Division of Reproductive Health, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, CDC.

Publication Date: 1 October 1999

Publication Site: CDC MMWR