Stillbirth labelled a 'national health crisis' as rates remain unchanged for more than 20 years

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

There have been renewed calls to educate pregnant women about what they can do to reduce the risk of stillbirth after new figures showed a slight increase in stillbirth rates across Australia.

Stillbirth Foundation Australia said the latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed there were 1724 stillbirths in 2016 – a slight increase on the previous year's figures of 1718.

The figures also identified Melbourne's south-west as recording the highest number of perinatal deaths in the country, with 71 stillbirths recorded.

On a state by state basis, NSW recorded the highest number of recorded stillbirths in 2016, with 465.

Victoria was second, with 457, followed by Queensland with 405 and Western Australia, with 223.

South Australia recorded 66 stillbirths, while Tasmania recorded 51, followed by the Northern Territory (28) and the ACT (22).

In Australia, stillbirth is defined as the birth of a baby without signs of life after 20 weeks' gestation.

A study released just last year found that women who sleep on their backs in the last trimester of pregnancy are four times more likely to experience a stillbirth.

University of Auckland researchers found lying on your back in late pregnancy was associated with physical effects that could compromise the baby's wellbeing. These include a reduction in the mother's cardiac output, reduced blood flow to the uterus and lower fetal oxygen levels.

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Stillbirth Foundation Australia CEO Victoria Bowring described stillbirth as a "national health crisis" and called on state governments to make it an urgent health priority.

"These are not just statistics; they are individual tragedies, which have devastating effects on families," she said.

Ms Bowring said the fact stillbirth rates had largely remained unchanged for decades showed more needed to be done to educate people about ways to prevent stillbirth.

"Action on stillbirth needs to be a national health priority if we are going to drive down the number of children who die each year," she said.

"The shocking number of stillbirths could be reduced with preventative measures, so it is vital that expectant parents know what they can do to reduce their chances."

Ms Bowring said simply educating women not to sleep on their backs during the final stages of pregnancy was one way to potentially lower the risk.

"More people must be made aware about stillbirth risks and preventative measures, such as sleeping on your side during pregnancy, if we are to drive down the stillbirth rate," she says.

"It is the role of government and health agencies, in co-operation with organisations like the Stillbirth Foundation, to get this message across, so that we can prevent these tragedies."

The University of Queensland's Centre of Research Excellence in Stillbirths says the rate of stillbirth in Australia has remained virtually unchanged for more than 20 years and accounts for 7.4 births in every 1000.

It says one in every 137 Australian women will experience a stillbirth, and Australia's rate of stillbirths after 28 weeks' is 30 per cent higher than countries such as Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands.

The centre's Dr Hanna Reinebrant said a study released late last year found 42 babies were stillborn in Australia each week and in 60 per cent of those cases the cause was listed as "unexplained".

Mater Research Institute – University of Queensland researchers conducted a global review of stillbirth reporting and classification. They reviewed 85 reports on stillbirths across 50 countries and found wide variations in investigation and classification systems, with only 13 considered good quality.

Dr Reinebrant says the reporting and categorising of stillbirths needed to be addressed urgently to better understand the causes of stillbirths and improve outcomes for families.

She called on the federal government to establish national guidelines for investigating stillbirths.

"If we can't explain why a stillbirth has happened, it's impossible to know what to target to prevent it in future," Dr Reinebrant said.

"It's important to establish a cause of death to help parents understand what went wrong and to guide clinical care for any future pregnancies.

"It would also help in developing prevention and education programs for women."

The centre says many stillbirths are not adequately investigated, resulting in possible missed diagnoses and adding to the grief of parents

Its website lists known causes of stillbirth in Australia as infection, maternal conditions, haemorrhage, spontaneous preterm birth and congenital abnormality.

The centre says risk factors include maternal perception of decreased fetal movements (strength or frequency), fetal growth restriction, smoking, hypertension, diabetes, being overweight or obese, pregnancy beyond 41 weeks' gestation, primiparity, maternal age over 35 years and previous stillbirth. It says women who sleep on their backs in late pregnancy also have an increased risk of stillbirth.