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Merck, putting $150M on the table, doubles down on pledge to tackle maternal mortality and health inequities

Around the world, a woman dies every two minutes from pregnancy or childbirth complications, most of them preventable. Merck has spent the last decade trying to change that—and now it’s doubling down.

The pharma giant, which has already invested $500 million through its “Merck for Mothers” initiative since 2011, is pledging a fresh $150 million to the cause, including $15 million to support maternal health in the U.S.

It also comes after Merck spun out its women’s health unit Organon last summer, which, when under the pharma made the bulk of its sales from birth control products.

With the latest investment, Merck aims to tackle worsening maternal health inequities amid the pandemic and to improve reproductive and prenatal health services for 25 million women by 2025, said Mary-Ann Etiebet, M.D., executive director of Merck for Mothers.

The latest pot of money will again be channeled to countries with the greatest need—including India, Nigeria, Kenya and the U.S.—with the $15 million earmarked for the U.S. coming specifically in response to a call from Vice President Kamala Harris.

During her Maternal Health Day of Action in December, Harris challenged the public, private and nonprofit sectors to join forces to fight the maternal mortality crisis, which she said is growing in the U.S. even as rates are dropping worldwide.

Etiebet said Merck’s investment in the Biden-Harris Maternal Call to Action will build on the company’s $20 million “Safer Childbirth Cities” initiative, which began in 2018. That program doled out $1 million grants to each of 20 community-based coalitions that had already been working with at-risk women.

Like the earlier initiative, the new funding will focus on solving health inequities particularly in communities of color, where maternal mortality rates are especially high.

As Etiebet points out, Black women in the U.S. are two to three times more likely than white women to die from complications during pregnancy and childbirth. In New York City, Black women are eight to 12 times more likely than white women to die—and those statistics were compiled before the pandemic put a strain on health systems and support programs.

Details about specific grants will come later, Etiebet said, but priorities will include building a perinatal workforce, improving coordinated healthcare in all stages of pregnancy (including the postpartum phase) and connecting mothers with needed social services. Like past efforts, the new grants will emphasize collaboration and also will draw on best practices and lessons learned from the Safer Childbirth Cities initiative.

“One thing we know is that there’s not just one solution. Maternal mortality is multifactorial,” Etiebet said. “There’s not just one organization or one sector of society that can solve this.”