The duchess of Cambridge’s difficult first trimester has provided a welcome change to the usual celebrity pregnancy discourse and has highlighted hyperemesis gravidarum, a little-known debilitating illness.
We have gotten used to magazines focusing on pregnancy glow, to actresses explaining how being pregnant was the best time of their lives and to models dispensing tips on bouncing back to their pre-pregnancy body, putting unnecessary pressure on expectant mothers who don’t have household staff, don’t have personal trainers and can wonder why their pregnancy is different from what is presented as the norm.
Rushed to the hospital on Monday for hyperemesis gravidarum, an illness most people had never heard of until then, the duchess of Cambridge reminded everyone pregnancy isn’t always picture perfect and can be dangerous. Medicine has taken the livelihood risk out of expecting in most of the Western hemisphere but it hasn’t always been the case, and still isn’t in too many countries.
According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, 350 000 women died from pregnancy-related conditions in 2008. In 2010, the UK had a maternal mortality ratio, defined by CIA - The World Factbook as “the annual number of female deaths per 100,000 live births from any cause related to or aggravated by pregnancy or its management”, of 12, nearly 100 times less than Chad or Somalia.
Hyperemesis gravidarum is one pregnancy-related illness which can result in death. Contemporary stats on the topic are hard to find but in the 1930s, hyperemesis gravidarum is thought to have caused 159 deaths per million births, a number which dropped to 3 deaths per million births in the 1950s (1) in the United Kingdom.
Nowadays, the cost of hyperemesis gravidarum has become economic rather than demographic. The illness can decrease job efficiency and force women to take sick days which, considering many country and company policies towards pregnancy isn’t ideal. It also impacts relationships and heightens the risk of prenatal depression, according to the HER Foundation, an American “grassroots network of hyperemesis gravidarum (HG) survivors”.
In other words, it sucks. Those difficulties are likely not improved by the many people thinking women suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum should just get a grip, a feeling echoed in too many op-eds, tweets and other benevolent online comments on the duchess this week.
The royals are at their strongest highlighting causes society doesn’t care about yet: prince Charles and organic food, princess Diana and HIV/AIDS patients in the 1980s… This is just what the duchess of Cambridge unwillingly did this week, giving in the process a voice to an unglamourous cause and force-educating the public on the topic. Nearly every media outlet has published heartfelt and at times horrific accounts of hyperemesis gravidarum by women and their partners alongside explanation of the illness. I wouldn’t be surprised if the duchess was asked to become patron of a UK association highlighting the risks inherent to pregnancy.
Since arriving on the public scene nearly ten years ago, Catherine has been nothing but dutiful. Her pregnancy isn’t just producing a new heir for the monarchy, it is highlighting a condition thousands of women suffer from the world round, which is exactly what she is meant to do as wife of the future king.
All photos from Defence Images, the Ministry of Defence brilliant Flickr account
(1) numbers from Misc.medscape.com, retrieved 06 December 2012.