Objectives: Racial disparities in infant and maternal mortality have been attributed to the unique stresses faced by Black women in the United States, but the underlying pathophysiological pathways are poorly understood. This paper reviews the literature related to potential causes of racial disparities in infant and maternal mortality.
Methods: A review of the literature from 1966 to 2003 was conducted using a series of searches of Medline, obstetrical journals, and bibliographies. The review focused on potential contributing pathophysiological factors to infant and maternal mortality.
Results: Racial disparities in neonatal mortality largely result from excess rates of preterm birth, fetal growth restriction, and neonatal sepsis while racial disparities in maternal mortality reflect greater prevalence and/or severity of cardiovascular/preeclamptic complications, hemorrhage, and infection among African American women. A large body of epidemiological, placental, and pathophysiological evidence suggests that racial disparities in these disparate outcomes result from two distinct, but potentially converging, pathways: infection and vascular. Racial disparities in intrauterine infection and microvascular dysfunction during pregnancy may result from a constellation of environmental and intergenerational risk factors including psychosocial stress, douching, bottle-feeding, lead exposure, diet, intrauterine growth, and genes.
Conclusions: Disparities in infant and maternal mortality appear to reflect a confluence of infections and microvascular dysfunction during pregnancy among African American women. Interventions that target these conditions offer promise for reducing racial disparities in these critical outcomes.