EDITORIAL: Valley an excellent place for conducting research on maternal health issues

A doctor measures the blood pressure of a pregnant woman. (Adobe Stock)
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The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley recently announced that it has been awarded a $2.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, allocated through the Maternal Health Research Network for Minority Serving Institutes. The welcome investment is part of a comprehensive effort to study pregnancy and help refine treatments and policies that can benefit women, their children and our society in general.

UTRGV will be one of 16 U.S. institutions to receive funding for the effort, and will use it to establish a Maternal Health Research Center in the Valley.

It’s a vital effort. Although the United States is one of the world’s wealthiest nations and access to health care in many ways is unsurpassed, the maternal mortality rate here is the highest among all developed countries — and it is rising. Certainly, some recent cases might be related to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the trend had begun before the pandemic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in 2021 the maternal mortality rate was 32.9 deaths per 100,000 live births, up from 23.8 deaths in 2020 and 20.1 in 2019. The most frequent causes of death were hemorrhaging during delivery, infection, high blood pressure, other complications and unsafe abortion procedures.

Those numbers, however, don’t tell us how many deaths might have been influenced by the availability, frequency and quality of prenatal care, but income, ethnicity and environment seem to be factors; as minority women have much higher rates of complications and deaths than white women do.

Dr. Candace Robledo, associate professor at the UTRGV School of Medicine and principal investigator for the grant, noted that women in the Valley have more health problems than in other parts of the state.

Research at institutions like UTRGV could be invaluable to pinning down why more women die during pregnancy and childbirth in this country than in other developed countries, and determining the best ways to reduce those numbers. The Valley is an excellent place to conduct such research, as many people here have risk factors associated with difficult pregnancies and other health issues, such as diabetes, obesity and hypertension. This area also endured a localized spike in neural tube disorders some 30 years ago that is still being researched.

Dr. Candace Robledo, associate professor in the UTRGV School of Medicine and principal investigator for the grant, said the award will help address health disparities in maternal health across the Valley. (UTRGV Photo)

Robledo said that in addition to direct medical issues, the Center will study social and behavioral influences such as anxiety and depression that are known to affect overall health. She also said the center will use its research to inform and assist the Valley’s network of promotoras, volunteers who take health-related information, counseling and other services to local colonias and other low-resource areas. This can have a direct impact on women who have risk factors such as poverty, lack of insurance and inadequate access to health care. Such efforts could improve women’s health during pregnancy and reduce the chance of problems during childbirth.

It’s unfortunate that maternal and other women’s health issues warrant attention and investigation. Fortunately, that attention is being given and UTRGV will help to study those issues and ways to address them.