Olivia Carville is an investigative reporter with the NZ Herald.

Lower infant death target slammed

A Maori health target for sudden infant death was lowered by Government officials because it was too difficult to achieve - even though Maori babies are five times more likely to die this way.

Last year, the Ministry of Health reduced the target from 100 per cent to just 70 per cent of caregivers of 6-week-old Maori babies being warned of the risks of sudden infant death.

READ MORE: Funding for safe-sleep bassinets secretly shelved by Government

Ministry officials said the lowered target, which came into force this month, was more reasonable for health workers. This target did not drop for any other ethnicity.

The decision to bring forward the goal posts on Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy (SUDI) education in Maori families was made because the ministry wanted to set an "achievable goal" that could be met and then reset, said Dr Janine Ryland, clinical advisor of child health.

However, experts claim this justification is "laughable".

"Dropping the target in only Maori families is a convenient way to make up for the poor performance of the state," said GP David Tipene-Leach.

"This is about making it easier for state workers to reach their targets, not about Maori babies."

Professor Ed Mitchell, a renowned cot death researcher and New Zealand's leading SUDI expert, said he could not understand the logic behind the ministry's decision.

"We know Maori have the highest mortality and therefore the education should be targeted at Maori groups," Mitchell said.

"Everyone needs to have that information, whether you are Maori or non-Maori. This should be 100 per cent for everyone."

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei said the "reduction of a target simply to make it more achievable shows they have no real interest in improving the health of Maori babies".

The ministry originally called for 100 per cent of Maori families to be given this information because that's the "ultimate goal", Ryland said.

The ministry's aim was to "continually improve" in this area, she said.

On Saturday, a Weekend Herald investigation found the ministry secretly tore up a $250,000 contract to fund a Maori safe sleep device aimed at reducing SUDI because of fears over its safety that were never discussed with experts.

The investigation also found that last year the ministry handed out almost $1 million of extra funding to eight health boards with high Maori SUDI rates on the condition that the money was not used to fund the portable, safe sleeping bassinets, known as wahakura or pepi-pods.

Every year in New Zealand, 50 babies die from SUDI, with at least 25 being accidentally smothered by their sleeping parents.

Maori babies are significantly more likely to die this way because of high smoking rates and the cultural custom of bed-sharing.

Coroners have repeatedly ruled over these preventable deaths, firing off dozens of warnings and recommendations to address this "hidden epidemic".

One such repeated recommendation is to roll out pepi-pods to all at-risk families - a call backed by chief coroner Deborah Marshall, former chief coroner Judge Neil MacLean and the medical community.

Since the creation of these safe sleep devices in the mid-2000s, grassroots funding and the support of 14 district health boards has seen 15,000 pepi-pods handed out across the country, with new research linking the pods to the first reduction in Maori SUDI rates in 16 years.

Similar safe sleep bassinets have been handed out to expectant mothers in Finland for the past 75 years.

Some say they have helped the Scandinavian country achieve one of the world's lowest infant mortality rates.

However, the Ministry of Health does not fund pepi-pods, claiming it is still "awaiting research" to prove they reduce infant deaths.

Ministry officials claim two thirds of the $1.3 million of annual funding that goes towards SUDI prevention is directed at Maori programmes.

More caregivers told of risk

Ministry of Health figures show that in 2014, only 48 per cent of caregivers of Maori babies aged 4 to 6 weeks were told about SUDI risks at Well Child Tamariki Ora appointments, when the target was 100 per cent.

In July last year, the Government decided to reduce the target to 70 per cent of caregivers.

Recent figures for last year show a significant improvement in this area, with 75 per cent of Maori caregivers being provided with this information - which was five percentage points higher than the Government's adjusted target, forcing it to now reset it again.

- NZ Herald

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