Olivia Carville is an investigative reporter with the NZ Herald.

Sleep pods to be funded as officials over-ruled

A Herald investigation last month found the Ministry of Health had secretly restricted the reach of the Maori-led safe-sleep initiative. Photo / Mike Scott
A Herald investigation last month found the Ministry of Health had secretly restricted the reach of the Maori-led safe-sleep initiative. Photo / Mike Scott

New mums will have access to life-saving safe sleep bassinets after a Government policy U-turn following a Herald investigation.

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman has over-ruled his officials, reversed a decade-long refusal to fund the pods and ordered an urgent national roll-out to save babies' lives.

A Herald investigation last month found the Ministry of Health had secretly restricted the reach of the Maori-led safe-sleep initiative, contrary to expert opinion and dozens of coroner recommendations.

The official explanation for the reluctance to fund the bassinets, called pepi-pods or wahakura, was a lack of evidence-based research.

Coleman previously supported the ministry's stance but backtracked after last week meeting with New Zealand's leading cot death expert.

He has now pledged to fund the pods, which allow parents to safely sleep with their babies and which advocates say have saved babies from accidental suffocation since as early as 2006.

"In light of our discussion, I have asked Ministry of Health officials to work with you and other paediatric experts around the country to develop a national safe-sleep programme that incorporates the appropriate use of safe-sleeping spaces," Coleman wrote to Professor Ed Mitchell on Monday.

The decision marks "a big day for us and New Zealand children" according to experts, advocates and coroners who pleaded for government support for years.

A delighted Mitchell said he reread the letter several times "to make sure it really did say what it said".

"This is a very clear endorsement from the minister and I'm delighted, to be quite frank," said Mitchell, an internationally renowned infant death researcher at the University of Auckland.

The decision would "almost certainly" save the lives of babies, he said, adding the national roll-out of the safe-sleep programme could cut the number of sudden infant deaths from 50 to as few as five each year.

New Zealand has the worst rate in the western world for Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy (SUDI). More than half of the babies are accidentally suffocated by parents while sleeping in the same bed.

Significant racial inequalities exist within these preventable deaths, and Maori babies are eight times more likely to die because of high smoking rates and the cultural custom of bed-sharing, the Herald's investigation found.

The flax-woven wahakura, or its $100 plastic sister the pepi-pod, were designed in 2006 to combat "embarrassingly" high Maori infant deaths.

More than 15,000 pods have been given to at-risk families through grassroots funding and recent research, co-authored by Mitchell, has linked pepi-pods to the first reduction in Maori infant death rates in 16 years.

Documents obtained by the Herald under the Official Information Act unveiled how the ministry secretly tore up a $250,000 contract to fund pepi-pods in 2012 over safety fears that were never discussed with experts, distributors or coroners.

Last year, the ministry gave $800,000 to eight DHBs to reduce infant death rates on the condition the money was not used on pepi-pods or wahakura.

Dr Pat Tuohy, the ministry's chief adviser of child health, previously said there was not enough evidence-based research to back the funding of pepi-pods, claiming Mitchell's recent research was based on a "scientifically weak" method.

After Coleman's meeting with Mitchell last week, the minister wrote how the professor's research "demonstrates that safe-sleeping spaces do have a role to play in helping to prevent SUDI".

"The aim will be to ensure that every family of a newborn is provided with a comprehensive, but customised package of information and follow-up support," Coleman wrote, adding he asked officials to do the work as soon as possible.

Ministry officials said the previous position was based on the best evidence available, not "personal belief".

"The ministry has now been given a clear steer by the minister, and will be progressing this promptly," Tuohy said.

Change For Our Children executive director Stephanie Cowan, who has led the pepi-pod distribution through grassroots funding, said "more vulnerable children will have a better chance at life now".

The minister's decision reflected a "complete turnaround" from the ministry's resistance to fund the devices over the past decade, she said.

"This is a lovely outcome."

Mariameno Nicholson-Walden, 32, lost her 2-month-old daughter Mereana from accidental asphyxia last January.

She had never been told about the pepi-pod, but believes it might have saved her baby's life.

"I'm glad to hear there will be changes on policy to support pepi-pods," she said, adding that "finally" the Government has listened.

Details on how the new safe-sleep scheme would be run and the source of funding were yet to be determined, Coleman's spokeswoman told the Herald.

"The key point is that safe-sleep spaces have a role in a national safe sleep programme and we now need to do the work."

Timeline

2005: New Zealand has the worst rate of sudden infant death in the West.

2008: A coroner recommends flax-woven wahakura bassinet should be given to at-risk families.

2012: Health Ministry secretly tears up a $250,000 contract to fund a national roll-out of pepi-pods.

July 9, 2016: The Herald publishes inquiry on the Government's reluctance to fund pepi-pods.

July 26, 2016: Coleman meets cot-death researcher Professor Ed Mitchell to discuss pepi-pods.

August 1, 2016: Coleman orders national roll-out of pepi-pods.

- NZ Herald

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