Britain’s stillbirth rate in the spotlight

Stillbirths – and the UK’s relatively high rate for a high-income nation – are in the headlines with new figures published today

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The UK’s stillbirth rate is the third worst among high-income nations, according to new stillbirth figures published today in the medical journal The Lancet. There also seems to be significant regional variations in Britain. In the East Midlands, stillbirths are 33% more likely than in the South West, according to the research.

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“Why we see that variation we don’t know, but there’s plausible explanations around deprivation and around different ethnic groups,” said Cambridge University’s Professor Gordon Smith, one of the report authors.

Around 4,100 stillbirths occurred in the UK in 2009, according to the report. The rate is 3.5 stillbirths for every 1,000 births, which is the same as New Zealand’s rate. The only two high-income countries that have a worse stillbirth rate are France and Austria, reports the BBC.

The nations with the lowest stillbirth rates are Finland and Singapore, with a rate of two stillbirths for every 1,000 births. The USA’s rate is three stillbirths for each 1,000 births.

On a global level, the UK is ranked 33rd best out of 193 countries for its stillbirth rate.

What causes a stillbirth?

In high-income countries, such as the UK, there’s a range of possible reasons, from problems with the placenta to infections or congenital abnormalities. However, about 30% of stillbirths have no obvious cause.

Are there things that increase the risk of stillbirth?

There are things that may raise the risk. These risks are the usual suspects – being overweight or obese, being an older mum, smoking and drinking when pregnant. Multiple birth and past caesareans are also mentioned as possible factors.

That said, the researchers emphasis the fact that you can still suffer a stillbirth, even if you have none of these risk factors.

What can be done to reduce the number of stillbirths?

Better monitoring in pregnancy may help, say those who wrote the reports. However, more research is needed to understand why stillbirths happen.

“It’s a very complex problem and what we do need is more research so that we can understand what is actually going on and hopefully pick up the women who are at risk that we now think aren’t, and also monitor during pregnancy so we notice when babies are failing to thrive and do something about it, if possible, before they die,” said Judith Schott, from the stillbirths charity Sands.

“We want women to receive consistently excellent maternity and newborn services that focus in improving outcomes. The Department of Health continues to invest in research in this important area,” said Health Minister Anne Milton.

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There’s also been talk about the fact nations with lower rates seem to spend more time investigating each stillbirth case.

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