Expert Q&A | Dr. Mary-Ann Etiebet, Merck for Mothers

It’s not hard to imagine Dr. Etiebet in either of her roles as a mother or as the lead and executive director of Merck for Mothers - a 10-year $500 million initiative to help create a world where no woman dies giving life. She’s nurturing and kind while extraordinarily sharp and focused. When we were first introduced, I found myself shirking from what I imagined as an intimidating responsibility to talk about the maternal health crisis - but she seemed too smart to miss an opportunity to connect. Dr. Etiebet has an incredible way of taking something that feels so far away and bringing it to you in a way that feels inclusive and encouraging to all efforts as mothers to create change. Below she shares that perspective - on the state of maternal health and what we can do as women in our own families and communities.


You are so passionate about this project - I know part of that is your upbringing and your own daughters.  What drew you into it and what keeps you motivated?

Both in my personal and professional life, I’ve seen the impact a mother’s death has on a family. Data also shows us that when a mother passes, it has an enormous ripple effect, including on her other children being more likely to leave school, suffer from poor health and other implications.

I have also seen the impact of a mother’s survival. At Merck for Mothers, we love to call this the “Mom Effect” – the positive role a mother has on her family, community and the nation. Mothers really are the cornerstone of a healthy and prosperous world. As a mother of two daughters, and a daughter and sister myself, it’s a privilege to work on an initiative that supports mothers and the multiple generations of those they impact.

I was shocked to hear the current statistics of maternal mortality - what are the leading causes?

The United States is one of few high-income countries where deaths related to pregnancy or childbirth are on the rise, and nearly 60% of these deaths are preventable. Leading causes of maternal death include excessive bleeding, high blood pressure, and blood clots. The rise in chronic health conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and obesity are also contributing to pregnancy and childbirth complications. Disparities also have an impact – for example, a black woman is 3 to 4 times more at risk than a white woman when it comes to pregnancy-related deaths.

We know we can prevent a significant portion of these deaths, and we’ve learned about and used evidence-backed solutions to improve maternal health outcomes. However, the critical next step is continuing to scale interventions that work, and identifying new ways to support mothers and improve outcomes for all moms.

I think many of us assume the U.S. is immune - why does it remain a significant issue in the States?

I meet so many people who are surprised by this! There are a number of reasons why this is the case and unfortunately, there is no magic bullet to address this crisis. For example, a contributing factor is a lack of data. If we don’t understand the root of why these deaths are happening, then it limits how fast and to what extent we can solve for it – that’s why Merck for Mothers is pushing for and supporting maternal mortality review committees and data that can lead to insight and action. For example, we supported statewide research that identified that there are on average up to three different factors that contributed to each maternal death. This tells us that there is no one solution to prevent maternal deaths, but we will have to work across teams, disciplines and sectors to save lives.

I’m expecting our second child in a matter of a few weeks so this is especially poignant. How do we, as expecting mothers, prepare ourselves for the healthiest deliveries knowing the data?

First of all, congratulations! I think a key step is being comfortable to be your own advocate. Get educated on maternal health, and make sure you are getting the consistent, quality care you deserve. If helpful, enlist someone who makes you feel stronger – whether a partner, family member, or a professional like a midwife or doula – to be your support system. Make sure those around you, both personal and professional, know what to look out for, such as signs and symptoms of potential complications to be aware of post-birth.

Maternal health, especially in extreme cases, feels so out of my grasp when it comes to creating changes - what can we do as mothers in our communities?

Being an advocate for yourself and those around you is incredibly important! We all have a role to play, both as individuals and as professionals, to support mothers in getting the care they deserve. I think there are three simple ways you can get involved

  1. Spread awareness about maternal health needs! We just released a short film I am incredibly proud of, “Reverse,” which showcases the emotional generational journey (based on real experiences) of women across the U.S. as they attempt to overcome challenges on their way to motherhood.

  2. Become an advocate! Our partners at the Preeclampsia Foundation are forming a national coalition of patient organizations and individuals united under a shared agenda to reduce complications in pregnancy and the postpartum period, and to improve maternal health outcomes for all women. You can learn more about it here .

  3. Encourage your local organizations to participate in the Safer Childbirth Cities initiative. The initiative will provide up to $10M in grants to help cities with poor maternal health outcomes develop and implement solutions to save women’s lives and narrow disparities.

Do these statistics come as as much of a surprise for you? What questions would add? xo

Featured Image via Merck for Mothers