Georgia lawmakers will meet next week to begin exploring why the Peach State has one of the worst rates of maternal mortality in the nation, according to an announcement from the Georgia House of Representatives.

Based on state data and maternal death rates from 2015 compiled by the CIA, Georgia is on par with the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and Mongolia and is more dangerous to give birth in than countries like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Maternal mortality rates measure the rate of deaths from any cause related to or aggravated by pregnancy or birth and is measured in the number of maternal deaths per 100,000 live births.

Recent findings from U.S. News and World Report indicated Georgia’s maternal mortality rate topped the country’s list from 2011-15, at 46.2 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. The national average during that span was 17.2.

Georgia Department of Public Health data from 2012-14 shows an even higher rate of maternal death, at 64 per every 100,000 live births.

To find out why Georgia’s rate is so high, state lawmakers in March passed a resolution establishing the House Study Committee on Maternal Mortality. The committee is scheduled to meet for the first time on Thursday.

“As soon as we saw the statistics, we were asking why,” said committee co-chair and state Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-east Cobb.

At its first meeting, the committee will get the most recent update possible from health professionals on maternal mortality in the state, try to better understand how each state measures its rate and how Georgia compares to others, said Cooper, a registered nurse.

“We’re going to start dissecting this with a fine-toothed comb,” she said.

In later meetings, the House Study Committee on Maternal Mortality plans to discuss what actions should be taken to address the issue, she said. The committee is set to dissolve on Dec. 1.

One of the first questions that occurred to her and others after seeing state data, Cooper said, is why that data takes so long to collect.

She questioned why the Georgia Maternal Mortality Review Committee, which compiles maternal mortality data annually, has only issued reports on their findings up to 2014.

“Why is it taking us so long to get up-to-date statistics about what’s happening? Why does it take that committee so long to get us that information?” she said. “That’s one of the things we’ll be discussing.”

Also concerning, she said, is that the state health department reports 60% of the 26 pregnancy-related maternal deaths out of 100,000 live births from 2012-14 were preventable and that minority mothers are more at risk for death.

Black, non-Hispanic women were more than three times more likely to die from pregnancy complications than their white counterparts, according to the Georgia DPH and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Those are both very troubling statistics. The fact that we could prevent almost two-thirds of these deaths — it is unconscionable for us not to look at what we have to do to prevent every death that is possible to prevent,” Cooper said, adding that one of the tasks of the committee is to explain why minorities are more at risk.

She also said comparisons between states may not be the best reflection of the problem, as some states report maternal deaths 42 days after delivery, while Georgia and other states report up to a year after.

“So it’s very hard to compare apples to oranges,” Cooper said. “The other thing is that it’s my understanding that they sort of compared nine states around us and used the same measurements and apparently, from what I’m hearing, is that we fared as well or better (than others in the region).”

Dr. Paula Greaves, WellStar Health System’s chief of women’s health, said while there are differences in data collection and therefore discrepancies in maternal mortality numbers, “whichever way you collect the data,” Georgia remains among the top five states with the worst rates.”

Greaves said the causes associated with maternal deaths are often the same problems the country has been struggling with for quite a while.

Conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity — some of which are more prevalent in African American populations — contribute to many of the deaths, she said. Other factors include postponing childbearing and limited access to proper pregnancy health care, especially in rural areas, she said.

“If you look at rural areas, 79 counties in Georgia do not have an OB-GYN,” Greaves said. “So 56% of our state struggles with the ability to provide obstetrical care for our patients.”

The solution in many cases, she said, begins with education and prevention. Hospitals across the state and around the country have begun launching initiatives addressing the issue. The initiatives provide a standardized set of practices aimed at spotting and preventing pregnancy-related issues before they occur, as well as empowering women to be their own health advocates, Greaves said.

The state’s House Study Committee on Maternal Mortality will meet Thursday, Sept. 19, from 1-3 p.m. in room 606 of the Coverdell Legislative Office Building, 18 Capitol Square SW, Atlanta.

Follow Thomas Hartwell on Twitter at twitter.com/MDJThomas.

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