Answers to why C-sections are on the rise

Why is the Cesarean rate so precipitously on the rise, from 21 percent of all American births in 1996 to 33.2 percent in 2007? The journal Obstetrics and Gynecology has the results of a new study that examines that question.

The Yale University Schools of Medicine and Public Health in New Haven, Conn., reacted to a spike in C-sections during births at Yale-New Haven Hospital between 2000 and 2002 by setting to work gathering comprehensive data on the 32,443 births that occurred there between 2003 and 2009, even while the hospital's C-section rate ballooned from 26 percent to 36.5 percent.

Not surprisingly, the study found that actual birth complications remained steady, while subjective judgments about the births changed.

The new study, presented at the February meeting of the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, looks at the decision-making on the part of individual doctors that drove that increase.

"In this study, we examined physician-documented indications for Cesarean delivery at a major urban academic medical center in Connecticut, a state with one of the largest rate increases in the nation, to determine which specific indications contributed to the increase in our Cesarean delivery rate over a seven-year period," the researchers wrote.

First-time mothers accounted for half of C-sections during the study.

Indications for Cesarean delivery included "nonreassuring fetal heart tracing," an interruption in dilation, more than one fetus, pre-eclampsia, an especially large baby (which begins to be a concern just shy of nine pounds), and the mother's expressed desire for a Cesarean, the study's authors reported.

Complications like breech presentations, an interruption in the baby's progress into the birth canal and cord prolapse  did not increase significantly over time, the study found.

Slow dilation and those unsatisfactory fetal heart rate reports displayed only slight increases over time but contributed to an outsize degree to the increase in C-sections, the study showed. Concern for the baby's well-being, based on fetal-heart monitoring, was the top indicator for a Cesarean section at Yale-New Haven Hospital during the period studied.

Maternal request, suspected macrosomia (a large baby), more than one fetus and pre-eclampsia also showed big annual increases as indications for Cesareans.

Interestingly, the C-section rate among patients of physicians in private practice was 33.2 percent. For "university patients," who received care from the hospital service's residents and faculty midwives, supervised by attending physicians, the rate was 25.6 percent. The rate for "high-risk" patients (whose care was provided by some of the same maternal-fetal specialists who supervised in the "university" cases) was 44.6 percent.

Making a difference in maternal mortality

It isn't that childbirth is more inherently dangerous in countries where many women die in childbirth than in those where relatively few die. The women who survive, statistically speaking, are getting appropriate help from trained attendants.

"...The main complications that lead to death during pregnancy or childbirth are fairly common among all women, regardless of where they live," write the authors of an article titled "Are We Making Progress in Maternal Mortality?" in the May 26 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.Pregnant Graffiti

Hemorrhage, which most often occurs right after birth, is the leading cause of pregnancy-related deaths globally, accounting for 35 percent of all deaths in childbirth, according to the World Health Organization. And in fact, hemorrhage was the second most common complication seen in pregnancies in the United States in 2000.

However, most U.S. women who suffered hemorrhage were treated quickly, and survived, say the article's authors, Anne Paxton and Tessa Wardlaw.

WHO identified the second most common cause of maternal death as hypertensive disorders — pre-eclampsia/eclampsia, for example. Again, these disorders are a common problem all over the world, but women with access to good medical care have a good chance of surviving them.

The countries that are most dangerous for pregnant women are those suffering through wars, or burdened with a large population with HIV/AIDS, the authors write.

In general, poor women die in childbirth more often than affluent ones, rural women more often than urban ones. These populations are more vulnerable because they often deliver their babies without the benefit of skilled birth attendants, and lack access to obstetrical services like surgery by Cesarean section.

Sub-Saharan Africa, with widespread political unrest and HIV/AIDS infection, "has the greatest burden of maternal mortality," even though most countries there are seeing "small but promising" decreases in pregnancy-related deaths.

Worldwide, there is considerable cause for hope, Paxton and Wardlaw write. Maternal mortality has decreased globally by more than one-third since 1990, according to United Nations estimates.

"Dramatic improvements in China and other Asian countries...are associated with economic improvement, decreasing fertility rates and strengthening of health systems...," the authors write.

"The overall rate of decline in global maternal mortality, 2.3 percent, is lower than the 5.5 percent MDG target but is heartening nonetheless," they write.

Image: "Pregnant Graffiti" by Petteri Sulonen


Priority medicines for mothers and children

The World Health Organization has published a list of 30 medicines that can make the difference between life and death for mothers and children younger than 5 years of age.

This list of "priority medicines" was developed by the WHO, the United Nations Population Fund and UNICEF. It is the first such list, the sine qua non for mothers and children regardless of where they are , according to an editorial in the Lancet. (This list should not be confused with WHO's Model List of Essential Medicines.)

"An estimated 8.1 million children under the age of five die every year and an estimated 1,000 women — most of them in developing countries — die every day due to complications during pregnancy or childbirth," states the introduction to the list.

The new publication is something of a "wish list," the Lancet notes, in that five of the medicines to protect young children have not yet been developed.

These are the generic treatments on the list that address conditions that threaten the lives of mothers:

* For post-partum hemorrhage — oxytocin and sodium chloride

* For pre-eclampsia and eclampsia — calcium gluconate injection (for treatment of magnesium toxicity), magnesium sulfate

* For puerperal infection —  ampicillin, metronidasole, gentamicin, misoprostol

* For sexually transmitted diseases — azithromycin for chlamydia, cefixime and, for syphillis, benzathine benzylpenicillin