SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) — The United States maternal mortality rate is higher than you might expect, and in Utah, researchers say the leading cause of pregnancy-related deaths is not related to pregnancy at all.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 32.9 deaths in the U.S. per 100,000 live births in 2021. This is an increase from the year before which had a rate of 23.8 per 100,000 births.

In July, the Associated Press reported that maternal deaths more than doubled in the U.S. over the course of two decades. The report said the U.S. has the highest rate of maternal mortality among high-income countries.

In Utah, University of Utah researchers are pointing to substance use disorders as the leading culprit for pregnancy-related deaths. Some of the communities that are most affected are rural Utah and Native American populations, according to the press release.

To help combat the trend, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is providing a grant of $14 million over the next seven years to the University of Utah ELEVATE Maternal Health Research Center of Excellence.

The grant money will be dedicated to certain initiatives in partnership with community groups, such as Sacred Circle (a Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation health system), Moab Regional Hospital, and Central Valley Medical Center.

One of the initiatives will be “developing culturally adapted health care practices for addiction before, during, and in the year following pregnancy,” the press release said. Another will be to train healthcare workers on the needs of communities with limited access to care.

“This investment from the National Institutes of Health in promoting maternal health in partnership with the community will allow us to create the necessary infrastructure and garner appropriate resources to make strides in preventing the incredibly tragic event of maternal death, which always has far-reaching consequences,” U of U Obstetrics and Gynecology Vice Chair of Research Torri Metz, M.D., said.