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ORIGINAL RESEARCH

Racial Disparity in Meconium-Stained Amniotic Fluid and Meconium Aspiration Syndrome in the United States, 1989–2000

Sriram, Sudhir MBBS, MRCP; Wall, Stephen N. MD, MPH; Khoshnood, Babak MD, MPH; Singh, Jaideep K. MD; Hsieh, Hui-Lung MD; Lee, Kwang-Sun MD

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Passage of meconium in utero in most cases is the result of a physiologic event. Infrequently, it can occur as a result of fetal hypoxia or acidosis.1–3 Regardless of its cause, once passed in utero, it might result in meconium-stained amniotic fluid and sometimes lead to meconium aspiration syndrome. Meconium aspiration syndrome represents a wide spectrum of clinical disease, ranging from mild transient respiratory distress to severe parenchymal lung disease and persistent pulmonary hypertension with high mortality.4–8

To date, only a few epidemiologic studies9,10 have been carried out on meconium-stained amniotic fluid and meconium aspiration syndrome. These studies have been limited to a regional or selected population and varied in their estimates of the impact of racial differences on the prevalence of meconium-stained amniotic fluid and meconium aspiration syndrome and its resultant mortality. With advances in obstetric and neonatal care, prevalence and case fatality of meconium aspiration syndrome would have improved over time.

The objectives of this study were to estimate the prevalence of meconium-stained amniotic fluid and meconium aspiration syndrome, as well as the differences in case fatality from meconium aspiration syndrome, between non-Hispanic black and non-Hispanic white infants with birth weights greater than 2.5 kg and gestational ages greater than 35 weeks in the entire US birth cohort for three periods: 1989–1991, 1995–1997, and 1998–2000.

MATERIALS AND METHODS

We used the linked US birth and infant death cohorts from 1989–1991, 1995–1997, and 1998–2000. Annual data sets consist of live birth files linked to infant death files. The percentage of linked birth and death records is approximately 98% in all data sets. Natality and mortality files produced annually by the National Center for Health Statistics include statistical data from birth and death certificates provided to the National Center for Health Statistics by the states. Based on the manual of the International Classification of Diseases and Causes of Death (ICD-9), both meconium-stained amniotic fluid and meconium aspiration syndrome were classified on birth and death records. The data were published in CD-ROM format by the National Center for Health Statistics.11 For our study, we used the most recent available data sets for linked infant birth and death files of the US birth cohorts for the years 1989–1991, 1995–1997, and 1998–2000. Meconium-stained amniotic fluid and meconium aspiration syndrome commonly occur in term infants (greater than 37 weeks' gestation).12 Birth weights greater than 2.5 kg approximately correspond to the 50th percentile of 35 weeks' gestation, so we selected infants with birth weights greater than 2.5 kg. There were 25,228,271 infants with birth weights greater than 2.5 kg. Of these, we excluded 171,210 (3.5%) non-Hispanic black infants and 949,241(4.6%) non-Hispanic white infants with unknown status of meconium-stained amniotic fluid and meconium aspiration syndrome. Our study population was then 4,564,976 non-Hispanic black infants and 19,542,744 non-Hispanic white infants with birth weights greater than 2.5 kg. We also grouped our study population by gestational age: preterm (35–37 weeks), term (38–40 weeks), and postterm (greater than 42 weeks).

Prevalence of meconium-stained amniotic fluid and meconium aspiration syndrome, as well as the case fatality of meconium aspiration syndrome, were compared between non-Hispanic blacks and non-Hispanic whites during the three periods. Within these groups, prevalence and case fatality were also compared between birth-weight groups (from 2.5 to 4.9 kg in 500-g increments) and gestational age groups (from 35 to greater than 42 weeks in 2-week increments). Prevalence of meconium-stained amniotic fluid was also examined in births with and without maternal complications, such as fetal distress, prolonged labor, chronic or pregnancy-induced hypertension, placenta previa, abruptio placenta, and unclassified third-trimester vaginal bleeding, all of which were defined according to ICD-9 classification. Logistic regression was used to estimate the risk of meconium-stained amniotic fluid, meconium aspiration syndrome, and neonatal death due to meconium aspiration syndrome by maternal race, birth weight, period, and maternal complications, with Stata statistical software (Stata Corp., College Station, TX).

RESULTS

For both non-Hispanic blacks and non-Hispanic whites, the prevalence of meconium-stained amniotic fluid showed a small but significant decline across the periods 1989–1991, 1995–1997, and 1998–2000. The prevalence was 89, 86, and 81 per 1000 live births in non-Hispanic blacks and 55, 52, and 49 per 1000 live births in non-Hispanic whites, respectively (P < .001) (Table 1). However, the prevalence of meconium-stained amniotic fluid in non-Hispanic blacks was higher than in non-Hispanic whites. Within each racial group, the prevalence of meconium-stained amniotic fluid was progressively higher with an increase in birth weight. The prevalence of meconium-stained amniotic fluid was significantly higher in non-Hispanic blacks in each birth weight group when compared with non-Hispanic whites. When adjusted for birth weight, the prevalence of meconium-stained amniotic fluid was found to be about 80% higher in non-Hispanic blacks when compared with non-Hispanic whites in each period (adjusted odds ratio [OR] 1.80, 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.79, 1.81 in 1989–1991; OR 1.83, 95% CI 1.81, 1.84 in 1995–1997; and OR 1.82, 95% CI 1.81, 1.83 in 1998–2000).

Table 1
Table 1:
Prevalence of Meconium-Stained Amniotic Fluid in US Birth Cohorts, 1989–91, 1995–1997, and 1995–2000

The prevalence of meconium-stained amniotic fluid was higher with maternal complications such as fetal distress, prolonged labor, chronic or pregnancy-induced hypertension, placenta previa, abruptio placenta, and other third-trimester vaginal bleeding. The prevalence of meconium-stained amniotic fluid was 99.5 per 1000 in the group with one or more of these complications and 59.4 per 1000 in those without any of these complications. Over the three periods, approximately 9.0% of non-Hispanic black births had at least one maternal complication, compared with 8.4% in non-Hispanic white births (Table 2). However, this difference in the prevalence of maternal complications between non-Hispanic blacks and non-Hispanic whites did not explain their disparity in prevalence of meconium-stained amniotic fluid. Controlling for the presence of maternal complications, the risk of meconium-stained amniotic fluid in non-Hispanic blacks remained higher than in non-Hispanic whites (unadjusted OR 1.79, 95% CI 1.78, 1.80; adjusted OR 1.79, 95% CI 1.78, 1.80).

Table 2
Table 2:
Prevalence of Births With Maternal Complications* and Prevalence of Meconium-Stained Amniotic Fluid in Births With and Without Maternal Complications in US Birth Cohorts, 1989–1991, 1995–1997, and 1998–2000

As in meconium-stained amniotic fluid, there was a decline in the prevalence of meconium aspiration syndrome, from 3.8 to 3.0 per 1000 live births in non-Hispanic blacks (P < .001) and from 2.5 to 1.7 per 1000 live births in non-Hispanic whites (P < .001) (Table 3). As in meconium-stained amniotic fluid, the prevalence of meconium aspiration syndrome was progressively higher with an increase in birth weight. Similarly, for each birth weight group this prevalence was higher in non-Hispanic blacks than in non-Hispanic whites. The birth weight–adjusted risk of meconium aspiration syndrome in non-Hispanic blacks was 62% higher (adjusted OR 1.62, 95% CI 1.58, 1.67) during 1989–1991; 59% higher (adjusted OR 1.59, 95% CI 1.54, 1.65) during 1995–1997; and 85% higher (adjusted OR 1.85, 95% CI 1.78, 1.91) during 1998–2000 than in the respective non-Hispanic white groups.

Table 3
Table 3:
Prevalence of Meconium Aspiration Syndrome in US Birth Cohorts, 1989–1991, 1995–1997, and 1998–2000

Although the prevalence of meconium-stained amniotic fluid and meconium aspiration syndrome was significantly higher in non-Hispanic blacks, the case fatality rate from meconium aspiration syndrome was not significantly different between these two racial groups throughout the three periods, with rates of 15.5, 15.2, and 11.2 in non-Hispanic blacks and 13.5, 11.2, and 10.1 in non-Hispanic whites per 1000 (Table 4). After adjustment for birth weight, the risk of neonatal death from meconium aspiration syndrome in non-Hispanic blacks was not different from non-Hispanic whites: adjusted OR 1.06, 95% CI 0.83, 1.35 during 1989–1991; adjusted OR 1.28, 95% CI 0.96, 1.69 during 1995–1997; and adjusted OR 1.12, 95% CI 0.80, 1.56 during 1998–2000.

Table 4
Table 4:
Neonatal Mortality With and Without Meconium Aspiration Syndrome in US Birth Cohorts, 1989–1991, 1995–1997, and 1998–2000

For all three periods, overall neonatal mortality of infants with birth weights greater than 2.5 kg was higher in non-Hispanic black infants compared with non-Hispanic white infants. These rates were 1.5 and 1.1 per 1000 live births for non-Hispanic blacks and for non-Hispanic whites, respectively, during 1989–1991 (P < .001). During the periods 1995–1997 and 1998–2000, these rates remained the same. They were 1.1 and 0.9 in non-Hispanic blacks and in non-Hispanic whites, respectively, and thus the disparity persisted (P < .001) (Table 4).

Compared with non-Hispanic whites, the risk of neonatal death in non-Hispanic blacks from all causes was 39% higher in the early period (P < .001), 23% higher in the middle period, and 30% higher in the late period (P < .001) (Table 5). Because the prevalence of meconium aspiration syndrome was higher in non-Hispanic blacks, we attempted to quantify a contribution of meconium aspiration syndrome mortality to this disparity. Controlling for the differences in birth weight distribution, disparity in this risk was narrowed. However, a further adjustment for meconium aspiration syndrome hardly made any additional reduction in this risk, which indicates that the disparity in overall mortality between these two racial groups cannot be attributable to the difference in prevalence of meconium aspiration syndrome (Table 5).

Table 5
Table 5:
Odds of Neonatal Death in Infants With Birth Weights Greater Than 2.5 kg in US Birth Cohorts, 1989–1991, 1995–1997, and 1998–2000

We also examined the prevalence of meconium-stained amniotic fluid, meconium aspiration syndrome, and meconium aspiration syndrome–specific case fatality by gestational age. The results were similar to those observed when analyzed by birth weight.

DISCUSSION

In our study population, the overall prevalence of meconium-stained amniotic fluid was 60 per 1000 live births. In recent reports,13–18 the prevalence of meconium-stained amniotic fluid ranged from 5.6% to 24% (median 14%). In our study, there was a significant difference between non-Hispanic blacks and non-Hispanic whites in the prevalence of meconium-stained amniotic fluid. It was 80% higher in non-Hispanic blacks than in non-Hispanic whites during all three periods. This difference is similar to the observation made by Alexander et al,9 who examined term infants in a university hospital from 1982 to 1990 and found a 50% increased prevalence of meconium-stained amniotic fluid in non-Hispanic blacks when compared with non-Hispanic whites.

One possible explanation for this racial difference in the prevalence of meconium-stained amniotic fluid in our study might have been the racial disparity in the prevalence of maternal complications associated with meconium-stained amniotic fluid. We ascertained the commonest maternal complications: fetal distress, prolonged labor, pregnancy-induced hypertension, chronic hypertension, placenta previa, abruptio placenta, and unclassified vaginal bleeding in the last trimester. However, adjustment for the difference in prevalence of these maternal complications did not reduce the higher risk of meconium-stained amniotic fluid in non-Hispanic blacks. Other maternal complications, such as cardiopulmonary disease and hematologic conditions, would have not impacted the disparity in the prevalence of meconium-stained amniotic fluid between these two racial groups because they are infrequent causes of meconium-stained amniotic fluid.

In our study, the overall prevalence of meconium aspiration syndrome was 2.5 per 1000 live births. In both non-Hispanic blacks and non-Hispanic whites, this prevalence declined over the three periods. However, there was a significant difference in the prevalence of meconium aspiration syndrome between non-Hispanic blacks and non-Hispanic whites. Racial disparity in the prevalence of meconium aspiration syndrome followed the pattern of meconium-stained amniotic fluid. The higher prevalence of meconium aspiration syndrome in non-Hispanic blacks was entirely attributable to the prevalence of meconium-stained amniotic fluid. In fact, if the rate of meconium-stained amniotic fluid were the same between the two groups, the prevalence of meconium aspiration syndrome would be 5% lower in non-Hispanic backs than in non-Hispanic whites.

Wiswell et al10 found no significant difference in the prevalence of meconium aspiration syndrome between non-Hispanic blacks and non-Hispanic whites when they studied 175,000 infants born in seven US Army Medical Centers. Their study was limited to a military population. The risk of meconium aspiration syndrome in this population might be different from that of the US population as a whole. In our study, the prevalence of meconium aspiration syndrome gradually declined over time. Wiswell et al10 noted a similar decline in meconium aspiration syndrome in the earlier period, between 1973 and 1987. They attributed this decline to the continuous improvement of delivery room care for infants born with meconium-stained amniotic fluid.

In our study, non-Hispanic black infants were more likely to die from meconium aspiration syndrome, compared with non-Hispanic white infants in all three periods. This is primarily because of the higher prevalence of meconium-stained amniotic fluid and, in turn, meconium aspiration syndrome in non-Hispanic blacks. However, once infants had meconium aspiration syndrome, case fatality was not different between these two racial groups in all three periods.

A word of caution is proper for interpreting the results of our analysis. The validity and accuracy of meconium-stained amniotic fluid and meconium aspiration syndrome reported on the US linked birth and infant death data are not known. It is quite possible that meconium-stained amniotic fluid and meconium aspiration syndrome were underreported in this data set. Hence, our figures might have underestimated the true prevalence of meconium-stained amniotic fluid and meconium aspiration syndrome. However, it is unlikely that this under-reporting is biased favoring one racial group over the other.

In conclusion, our results suggest that, compared with non-Hispanic whites, non-Hispanic blacks are at a significantly greater risk for meconium-stained amniotic fluid and meconium aspiration syndrome but not for meconium aspiration syndrome case fatality. Further investigation on pathophysiologic mechanism(s) leading to meconium-stained amniotic fluid and meconium aspiration syndrome would contribute to the future prevention of this serious perinatal complication.

REFERENCES

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APPENDIX A

TABLE
TABLE:
Risk of Meconium-Stained Amniotic Fluid for Non-Hispanic Blacks by Gestational Age for Three Periods in the United States

APPENDIX B

TABLE
TABLE:
Risk of Meconium Aspiration Syndrome for Non-Hispanic Blacks by Gestational Age for Three Periods in the United States

APPENDIX C

TABLE
TABLE:
Risk of Meconium-Stained Amniotic Fluid for Non-Hispanic Blacks by Birth Weight for Three Periods in the United States

APPENDIX D

TABLE
TABLE:
Risk of Meconium Aspiration Syndrome for Non-Hispanic Blacks by Birth Weight for Three Periods in the United States
© 2003 by The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Published by Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc. All rights reserved.