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UK stillbirth rate 'shocking'

Urgent action is needed to tackle Britain’s high rate of stillbirths and deaths in the first few weeks of life, according to a new report.

The number of stillbirths in the UK is “shocking” and up to 1,200 could be avoided every year, the charity Sands said.

Seventeen babies are stillborn or die shortly after birth every day - a figure that has barely changed since the late 1990s.

In 2010, 4,110 babies were stillborn, another 1,850 babies died in the first hours or days of life, and a further 507 died aged between one and four weeks.

Sands is calling for a range of measures to bring down the number of deaths, including research into scans and tools that may identify babies at risk, particularly later in pregnancy, and increased public awareness of the risks for expectant mothers.

“Stillbirth is where cot death was 30 years ago,” the report said. “There is still so much to be done.”

Last April, Britain’s record of stillbirths was condemned as a “national scandal” after it was shown to be one of the worst in the developed world.

More babies are born dead in the UK than almost anywhere else among the richer nations, experts writing in The Lancet said.

The figure is 10 times the toll of cot deaths and more than the number of people killed on the roads.

There are also large regional differences. For a woman in the Midlands, the chances of having a stillborn child are a third greater than they would be if she lived in the South West.

Of all the high-income countries, only New Zealand, Austria and France have higher stillbirth rates than the UK.

The UK’s record puts it on a par with Belarus and Estonia.

Common causes of stillbirth include congenital malformations, maternal medical problems and birth complications and infections.

However, a third of cases cannot be explained.

Risk factors for women include being over 35 years of age, carrying excess weight, smoking, alcohol or drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and multiple pregnancies, belonging to an ethnic minority group and social deprivation.

Launching the report, Preventing Babies’ Deaths: what needs to be done, Neal Long, chief executive of Sands, said: “The scale of baby deaths in the UK is shocking.

“Our new report describes the devastating impact these deaths have on parents and their families, and highlights the areas where we believe progress can be made to save hundreds of babies’ lives.

“A third of stillborn babies - around 1,200 babies - are born late in pregnancy (after 37 weeks’ gestation), at gestations when they might safely be delivered.

“But routine antenatal care is failing to detect far too many babies who need help.”

The report said new tests urgently need to be developed to understand some of the major causes of stillbirth, including problems with the placenta.

Poorly performing placentas are thought to be involved in restricting growth and preventing enough oxygen reaching the baby.

The report said: “Problems with the placenta are poorly understood and require urgent research - until there is a way to test whether a placenta is functioning well, all women and their babies are potentially at risk.”

Experts hope a test could eventually be developed which would pick up problems with the placenta early on, enabling doctors to work out if the baby needs to be delivered earlier than 37 weeks.

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