Babies' deaths may be avoidable

The increased number of deaths among Maori and Pacific Island babies, and babies born to women who live in low socio-economic areas, must be investigated, says a report to the Health Ministry.

The perinatal and maternal mortality review committee report for 2008, released yesterday, found that babies born to Pacific and Maori women, under 20 and over 40 years of age, and those who live in areas of high socio-economic deprivation were at higher risk of dying than other babies.

Perinatal mortality refers to deaths that occur in the period between 20 weeks' gestation and 28 days after the baby is born.

In 2008, there were 5880 babies born in the Waikato District Health Board region, producing 8.9 per cent of all babies born in New Zealand that year. Of that number, 66 had perinatal deaths, the third highest number of all health boards, behind Counties Manukau and Waitemata. The total was an increase of 16 from 2007.

The report said the reasons for the increased death rate were unknown and should be researched. It called the number of stillborn babies in New Zealand "concerning", saying many of the deaths may have been preventable.

The report also found that in more than 45 per cent of cases the mothers of stillborn babies and mothers of neonatal deaths were overweight or obese.

Professor Cindy Farquhar, chair of the committee and professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at Auckland University, said the maternal mortality rate in 2008 was 13.7 per 100,000 maternities.

The perinatal mortality rate for the same year was 10 per 1000 total births.

"These rates are similar to both Australia and the United Kingdom," Prof Farquhar said.

"The majority of district health boards are reported to be within the national perinatal mortality rate."

The stillbirth rate during 2008 was 0.49 per 1000 births. Maori and Pacific women were more likely to have a stillbirth or neonatal death compared with New Zealand European and Asian women.

The report also recommended screening pregnant women for any history of mental health problems to identify women at an increased risk of mental illness during pregnancy, and an investigation into the low uptake of autopsies among families who experienced perinatal loss.

About half of the families accepted the offer of an autopsy.

The chair of the organisation Sands, which supports parents and families following the death of a baby, Vicki Culling, said the report would help those in the sector learn and identify where maternal and neonatal services might be improved.

"The loss of mothers and their babies has an unfathomable impact on families and communities," Ms Culling said.

The mission of the perinatal and maternal mortality review committee is to identify areas in maternity and newborn care where improvements can be made.

It was the second report to present a full 12 months of perinatal and maternal data to the Health Ministry.

Waikato Times