Health & Science

Harris County approves $7.7 million program to fight maternal and infant mortality

The county’s maternal morbidity rate soared by more than 50% between 2008 and 2015.

Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Harris County Commissioners Court on March 22, 2022.

Harris County leaders have unanimously approved a $ 7.7 million pilot program aimed at reducing maternal and infant mortality.

The program will use American Rescue Plan funds to serve 300 households over five years in an expanded maternal health care program, with home visits by community health workers.

It comes as maternal mortality rates in the county are soaring.

"Harris County has the highest rates of maternal morbidity among metropolitan areas in the entire country. Between 2008 and 2015, Harris County's incidence of maternal morbidity increased 53%, compared to a 15% increase for the state of Texas overall," said Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who led the effort to pass the program.

To put the threat to Harris County in context, Judge Lina Hidalgo compared local maternal mortality statistics to global ones.

"Around the world, the maternal mortality rate is around five deaths per 100,000 live births in developed countries. In the United States, the number is higher, much higher than in other counties," she said.

That compares to 55 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in Harris County, Hidalgo added.

"For African-American women, the mortality rate is 106.1 (maternal deaths per 100,000 live births)," she said.

Texas state Rep. Shawn Thierry noted that her district in southern Houston and Harris County has an abnormally high rate of maternal mortality. She herself nearly died in childbirth.

"What I would urge you all to do in the program is to allow it to continue post-partum, that these home visits continue, because as we're seeing, some of these maternal mortalities, up to a third, are happening after the moms give birth. And so, we don't want to overlook that fact," Thierry said.

Commissioner Ellis noted that Harris County is one of the last major U.S. urban areas to engage in a pilot program of this type.

"That's both good and bad," Ellis said. "Bad in that it took so long, but good in that we benefit from mistakes and we benefit from the data that other people came up with."

The program won the support of both Republican commissioners. Commissioner Tom Ramsey thanked Ellis for "focusing on life," while Commissioner Jack Cagle stressed that the program would not exclude any group of women.

"Although we have the focus on those who are in the greatest need," Cagle said, "we're not going to turn any mom away in this program...The focus will be in the area where they have highest need because of what the mortality rates are, and that all makes sense."