'Invisible' babies' deaths preventable - study

Most stillborn baby deaths which occur during labour "may have been preventable", says the head of a new study into baby and mother deaths.

A report from the Perinatal and Maternal Review Committee released today found 700 babies died in New Zealand in 2008, during pregnancy, birth or shortly after birth - one in every 100.

Of those, 379 were stillborn, including 75 who died during labour and were full-term, full size babies, whose death could have been prevented, committee chairwoman, obstetrics professor Cindy Farquhar said.

"The intrapartum (during labour) stillbirth rate continues to be of concern as the majority of these babies are full term and not small for gestational age and therefore may have been preventable deaths."

But only half of families agreed to post-mortems, so "we can't work out why they died, which is a bit shocking", she said.

"A portion" appeared to be from lack of oxygen during birth but she hoped next year's study would provide more answers.

New Zealand's baby death rate, while similar to those in Australia and the UK, outstripped deaths from crashes and breast cancer, yet failed to get much attention, Prof Farquhar said.

"Often babies who die around the time of birth are kind of invisible...they haven't become known to the wider community, so it's often poorly recognised how much loss there is to a family and whanau."

She said a new working group on neonatal deaths would be reviewing the deaths and hoped to provide some answers from 2009 data.

The committee called on the Health Ministry and District Health Boards to provide more research into why babies of Pacific Island, Maori, teenaged and over-40 mothers died, as well as those who live in low socio-economic areas, to avoid "possibly preventable" deaths.

More work was needed on why so few families rejected post-mortem and links between baby deaths, smoking and obesity where there was a lack of national data, she said.

Of all the babies who died, 28 per cent came from mothers who smoked.

Almost half - 49 per cent - of women who had stillbirths were overweight, as were 45 per cent of mothers of newborns who died.

Prof Farquhar said this year's report revealed where further investigation was needed. Next year, she hoped the committee could provide a figure on how many baby deaths were preventable and what the causes were.

"...we want to identify where these deaths can be prevented and really get the message out there and make a difference for those ones."

Today is International Baby Loss Awareness Day

- NZPA

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