A government health expert says New Zealand has stalled in its efforts to stop babies dying, after an American study ranked the country as the second worst in the industrialised world for infant deaths.
"We had a meeting a month or so ago to talk about what we should be doing to refocus SIDS [sudden infant death syndrome] because we plateaued out," Pat Tuohy, Ministry of Health chief adviser on child and youth health, said yesterday.
"We did really well for a while but now the rate's dropping very slowly and we need to revitalise it."
SIDS is one of three main causes of infant mortality, alongside premature/small babies and congenital defects.
A Commonwealth Fund study released this week ranked New Zealand second out of 23 countries with 5.6 deaths in 1000 live births. Only the United States fared worse, with seven deaths per 1000 births. Iceland had the lowest rate - 2.2 deaths per 1000.
Dr Tuohy criticised the study for publishing out-of-date statistics from 2001 and not including all 34 OECD countries, making New Zealand look worse. The country's infant mortality rate got worse in 2002 (6.2 per 1000) but improved in 2003 to 5.4 per 1000 - midway down the OECD table.
But he acknowledged New Zealand had a problem.
A bigger focus on Maori was needed "because most babies who die now of SIDS are Maori babies".
Smoking in pregnancy was "one of the biggest things" to deal with, as it affected babies' brains.
"If we could address that, we could address ... some of the biggest causes of our infant mortality, which is babies being born too early and too small."
From mid-2007, midwives would be asked to collect data from pregnant women to check if smoking was dropping or not. Public health campaigns to stop smoking were also to focus on pregnant women, again with the help of midwives.
A proposal by transtasman regulator Food Standards Australia NZ to fortify bread with folic acid would help to lower abnormalities such as spina bifida, which caused many fatalities, Dr Tuohy said.
In the 1960s and 70s, New Zealand was rated 10th in the industrialised world for infant mortality, but dropped in the 80s and 90s after a SIDS epidemic. It was slowly improving again, he said.