How Dedication to Black Maternal Health Honors the Legacy of Henrietta Lacks

Sixty-seven years ago, two tissue samples taken from a young, African-American woman diagnosed with cervical cancer led to the most important cell lines in medical research. Her name was, of course, Henrietta Lacks. Today, it would be difficult to find someone who isn’t familiar with her story. The “immortal” He-La cells have been used in more than 74,000 studies and have led to the discovery of the Polio and HPV vaccines, treatments for diseases, including diabetes and AIDS and other life-saving research around the world.

The contributions Lacks made to medical science have been heralded in the best-selling book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” by the foundation created in her name, in countless news stories, in an HBO movie starring Oprah Winfrey and by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through the establishment of a working group in her honor. In 2013, the NIH stated that Lacks and her family were the “greatest philanthropists of our time.” However, it wouldn’t be until 1987, 36 years after her cells were replicated and shared widely amongst the research community, that the NIH would institute a policy “encouraging” the inclusion of minorities in clinical studies. And it would be another six years before Congress would make it law through a section in the NIH Revitalization Act of 1993 entitled Women and Minorities as Subjects in Clinical Research. The reason for this move by the NIH is obvious. We cannot appropriately evaluate the effects of drugs in clinical trials without a racially diverse sample.

Therefore, it should be considered one of the greatest conundrums of our time that a black woman is responsible for thousands of breakthroughs in biomedical research and yet, in 2018, black women are three or four times more likely to die during childbirth than their white counterparts. When it was discovered that Lacks had cervical cancer, she had just given birth to her fifth child. At 31 years of age, Lacks suffered from a severe hemorrhage after childbirth and died eight months later after receiving routine cancer treatments and experiencing continued abdominal pain.

By today’s definition, Lacks would be counted among the women lost to maternal mortality. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, the maternal mortality rate in the 1950s was 83.3 deaths per 100,000 live births. And while that number has decreased significantly since then, it is well-known that the United States is considered one of the most medically advanced developed countries— and yet, it has the highest maternal mortality rate amongst its peers, with even higher numbers for minority women.

I’ve done several media interviews on the topic of racial disparities in maternal mortality. Reporters always ask why these disparities exist, especially among well-educated, affluent black women where access to care is not an issue. In my interview with Essence magazine, I explain that there is a complex web of causes, but it often involves social determinants of health and structural barriers to health care. Whether an African-American woman is rich or poor, has a GED or a PhD, she is susceptible to morbidity and mortality and implicit biases of race and class. This not only impacts the quality of care she receives, but can also have negative physiological effects. The relationship between stress and how we respond to that stress physiologically has well-documented associations with prematurity and cardiovascular disease. The “microaggressions” that black women endure throughout their lives also make them predisposed to chronic conditions that can make a pregnancy high risk, such as hypertension and diabetes. It is a failure in our medical care as providers if we do not 1) recognize and accept this and 2) meet the necessary cultural and systemic challenges that impact health outcomes.

During my ACOG presidency, much of my focus has been on providing guidance on how to make these system level changes. In May, ACOG will release a revised “Optimizing Postpartum Care” Committee Opinion developed by my presidential task force, “Redefining the Postpartum Visit,” and the Committee on Obstetric Practice. It will stress the importance of the fourth trimester and propose a new paradigm for postpartum care. When women fail to receive postpartum care, it impedes management of chronic health conditions. Attendance rates are often lower among populations with limited resources, which contributes to health disparities.

As we celebrate Black History Month and the contributions of African-American mothers like Henrietta Lacks, we must honor her legacy by not accepting the deaths of black women from pregnancy and childbirth as a reality of race.

Our Moral Values, Our Core Values

It’s an interesting time for women’s health care, to say the least. With the recent passage of the American Health Care Act by the U.S. House of Representatives, obstetrician-gynecologists are faced with an uncertain political future. You may have the same questions that I do. Will this impact the way we practice and how we provide the best care for our patients?

As I took the reins as the 68th President of The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists last week, I discussed the importance of the Hippocratic Oath, one of the oldest binding commitments in history. Building from the central premise to ‘first do no harm,’ it outlines our responsibilities and obligations as ob-gyns to provide the best evidence-based care to all of our patients. These are our moral values, our core values and as women’s health care provides we have long demonstrated the passion and compassion in the clinical care of our patients.

At medical school graduations and hooding ceremonies at Duke University and many other institutions, all physicians in attendance have the opportunity to reaffirm and recite the Hippocratic Oath with the graduating medical school class. It’s a great reminder of why we do what we do:

“I will apply for the benefit of the sick, all measures that are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.”

“I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability.”

“My responsibilities include those related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.”

Regardless of the political climate, I urge you to remember that we are ACOG: the primary advocate for women’s health care. We cannot waiver on our position on key issues including the primacy of patient welfare, patient autonomy and social justice. These values address our societal contract as physicians; considering the available resources and needs of all while taking care of the individual.

We have many challenges ahead and hurdles to overcome especially in regard to access and affordability of essential benefits for pregnancy care and age appropriate preventative well woman’s screenings. However, we must remain steadfast in our commitment to women’s health care. I look forward to working with you, my colleagues, and our new Fellows who took the oath last week to provide the best clinical care to women of this country.

Prevention of Preterm Birth Starts with a Healthy Mom

November 17 is World Prematurity Day. It gives us, as health professionals, an opportunity to direct our attention to a devastating health issue that impacts 15 million babies each year and rededicate ourselves to reducing that number. Several organizations, including ACOG, are supporting the cause through education, awareness, and advocacy events. However, there’s one event in particular that, coincidentally, started this week and stands to make the most significant impact in terms of lowering the preterm birth rate in this country and that’s open enrollment through the Health Insurance Marketplace.

Prevention of preterm birth starts with a healthy mom and that means access to prenatal care and preventive services. There are several risk factors for preterm birth, some of which include high blood pressure, low pre-pregnancy weight, alcohol and drug abuse, smoking, a prior preterm birth and a birth less than 12 months ago. Adequate health insurance coverage can make the difference between a pregnant woman carrying to term or delivering too early and the Affordable Care Act has helped make that coverage accessible to millions of women.

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Setting the Record Straight on Drinking During Pregnancy

When confronted with so many different types of infections and viruses that can threaten the health of an unborn baby, it’s unfortunate that drinking during pregnancy is still the leading cause of birth defects in this country and abroad. Without knowledge of the devastating effects, it’s easy to have a casual attitude toward drinking but when a fetus is exposed to any amount of alcohol it can lead to a number of permanent and debilitating conditions. These are known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) and can include anything from severe brain damage and growth deficits to lifelong learning and behavioral problems in children. September is designated as FASD Awareness Month but my hope is that at some point in the near future there is no longer a need to observe it because the fact is—FASD is 100 percent preventable.

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Ob-Gyns Can Empower Women to Choose Breastfeeding

Only 22 percent of mothers in the United States are exclusively breastfeeding their babies at six months. Although most U.S. women initiate breastfeeding, more than half wean earlier than they desire and fall short of their personal goals. These are startling statistics given all the research and evidence we have that shows how beneficial it can be for both women and babies. That says to me that we, as providers, can do more to empower women with the knowledge to make this critical decision. As National Breastfeeding Month comes to a close, it seems like an appropriate time to remind us how important our guidance really is and the potential impact it could make on health outcomes.

There are many barriers to successful breastfeeding but I believe the key to overcoming them starts with education—the one factor that physicians have the most control over. Misinformation can often be the culprit when it comes to a mother making the decision not to breastfeed. Discussions about breastfeeding should be integrated into maternity care. Providers should obtain a thorough history and find out early what expectant mothers know or have heard about breastfeeding. Often times, it’s as simple as mitigating fears regarding pain associated with breastfeeding and letting mothers know that it might not come naturally at first and that, with the right support, techniques are learned and will improve over time. Providers should respect and support a woman’s informed decision whether to initiate or continue breastfeeding, as each woman is uniquely qualified to decide which feeding option is best for herself and her infant.  However, pregnant mothers take their doctors’ advice seriously, so we shouldn’t underestimate our influence. By saying nothing, we imply that it doesn’t matter—and it does.

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Immunization is Crucial for Pregnant Patients and Their Babies

As ob-gyns, we know the important role that vaccination plays in the health of mother and baby. It is one of our best options in reducing their chances of morbidity and mortality from vaccine-preventable diseases. Additionally, vaccination helps prevents the spread of certain infectious diseases.

The fall is usually when we start reminding women to get their annual flu vaccine, especially if they are pregnant. However, recent reports of whooping cough (pertussis) and measles exposure underscore the need to discuss other vaccinations with our patients. August is National Immunization Awareness Month and a great time to talk to your pregnant patients about immunization.

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Zika Provider Action Week

The White House has declared this week Zika Provider Action Week. This call to action could not come at a better time. The Zika virus has occupied our profession and our patients nearly non-stop since news of it broke last fall. There is no doubt that Zika presents a very real concern to patients and challenge to health care providers. With the discovery of virus transmission by mosquitoes here in the United States, many of us are faced with the even more real possibility of treating patients with potential or confirmed exposure.

As ob-gyns, we are on the front lines of patients’ concerns about Zika. As each new finding is played out in the news, our patients call or come in looking for answers to help their understanding of the risk, and more often than not, assuage their fears. Unfortunately, in the instance of Zika, we too are often scrambling for knowledge, seeking elusive answers from research institutions and government agencies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has done an admirable job working quickly and efficiently to assess, address, and educate the American public about the Zika outbreak.

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Call to Action for an International Day for Maternal Health and Rights

Vineeta Gupta MD, JD, LL.M Technical Director, Global Women's Health American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

Vineeta Gupta MD, JD, LL.M
Technical Director, Global Women’s Health
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

A woman dies from pregnancy or childbirth every two minutes. Almost all of these deaths (99%) are in developing countries. The most heartbreaking part is that the vast majority of these deaths are preventable.

As the nation’s leading group of physicians providing health care for women, ACOG strongly advocates for quality health care for women – everywhere.

That’s why, in an effort to demonstrate the urgency of global action to protect maternal health and rights, ACOG recognizes today as the International Day for Maternal Health and Rights.

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Choosing Wisely®: Five More Things Physicians and Patients Should Question

As obstetrician-gynecologists, we understand the importance of providing safe, high quality care for our patients. But as the nation focuses on better ways to provide this care, the overuse of resources is an issue of considerable concern and many experts agree that the current way health care is delivered in this country contains too much waste and inefficiency. It’s crucial that providers across all specialties and patients work together to have conversations about wise treatment decisions. That’s why ACOG is a proud partner of Choosing Wisely®, a campaign led by the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) Foundation, with a goal of advancing a national dialogue on avoiding unnecessary medical tests, treatments and procedures.  The key word here is “unnecessary.”

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It’s Not Too Late to Vaccinate Your Patients Against Influenza

The New Year is upon us. Unfortunately, it also coincides with flu season and we still have a long way to go when it comes to educating our patients on the benefits of the influenza vaccine. A recent poll found that many Americans don’t believe they need the flu shot. Those who haven’t been immunized cited a variety of reasons including the belief that the flu shot is unnecessary, belief that the vaccination is ineffective, concerns about the side effects or risk and worries that the vaccine could infect them with the flu. As clinicians, we know that the flu shot is safe, effective, and the best protection our patients have against influenza. It is our job to communicate these messages to all of our patients, especially pregnant women.

December 6th marked the beginning of National Influenza Vaccination Week, a national campaign to urge everyone to get the flu vaccine. Throughout the entire flu season, I encourage all health care providers to strongly recommend the flu shot to your patients, emphasizing the importance of this simple preventative health action.

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