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Preventing Stillbirths: new report identifies significant variations in rates of stillbirth across the UK

A stillbirth is defined as the death of a baby before or during birth after 24 or more weeks of pregnancy.

There are a number of potential causes of stillbirth, for example extreme prematurity or congenital anomalies such as a heart defect.  However, in nearly half of all stillbirths in the UK (46%) the cause of death is unknown.  These findings were set out in the latest report from MBRRACE-UK (Mothers and Babies: Reducing Risk through Audits and Confidential Enquiries across the UK), which is an organisation comprising of a number of academics and medical experts in the field.

The report’s full title is the Perinatal Mortality Surveillance Report – UK Perinatal Deaths from Birth from January to December 2014, and it was published on 17 May 2016.

The findings of the report are especially pertinent this month, as it is the stillbirth and neonatal death charity SANDS awareness month when the charity are hosting a number of campaigns to increase awareness of stillbirths and neonatal deaths and the work the charity do in this regard, including funding research seeking to prevent stillbirths.

Report findings:

In 2014 there were 5,623 registered deaths of babies who died either before, during or shortly after birth in the UK.  This equates to approximately 15 babies each day in the UK and represents only a small decrease from the number of stillbirths identified in 2013 despite a number of initiatives being put in place aiming to significantly reduce the numbers of stillbirths.

Significant variation persists in the rates of stillbirth across the UK.

The report highlighted the following increased risks for stillbirths:

  • The risk is 3 times higher with twin pregnancies;
  • The risk is 80% higher in black or black British babies;
  • The risk is 60% higher in Asian or Asian British babies;
  • The risk is 60% higher where the mother is aged 40 or above;
  • The risk is 50% higher if the mother lives in poverty;
  • The risk is 30% higher in teenage mothers.

What more needs to be done?

The rate of stillbirths not only varies widely within the UK, but is also reported to be significantly higher than rates of stillbirth reported in other developed European countries.

Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has previously pledged to halve the rate of such deaths by the year 2030.  However, SANDS have stated that the Government’s financial commitment, currently amounting to £3.60 per birth in England, is ‘woefully inadequate’.  Maternity units are also under increasing pressure due to funding cuts and staff shortages which will affect patient care.

SANDS Acting Chief Executive, Judith Abela, has highlighted that variations in care across the UK persist:

The risk of your baby dying remains influenced by where you live and who you are.”

Charities and healthcare professionals are all agreed that hundreds of stillbirths could be prevented each year.  The MBRRACE-UK report makes the following recommendations:

  • All organisations should carry out local reviews for all stillbirths and neonatal deaths, adopting a standardised process in order to identify potential causes and to learn lessons;
  • All parents should be offered a post mortem when their baby dies to establish or exclude potential causes.  Not only may this affect a future pregnancy for the parents involved, but the findings are of great importance to a study such as the one carried out by MBRRACE-UK and guiding research to prevent stillbirths more widely by better understanding the cause;
  • Targets should be set for reducing the rates of stillbirth and neonatal death and to ensure parity throughout the country.

Our experience:

As a solicitor who has acted on behalf of parents who have suffered a stillbirth due to substandard medical treatment during pregnancy/delivery, I have seen the devastating effects of stillbirth on my clients and their wider families, particularly where it could have been prevented.  I am fully supportive of the recommendations arising from the latest MBRRACE-UK report.

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