‘Hiddentragedy’:boost in funding for stillbirth research

Sydney Morning Herald | Thursday 4 July 2019

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The federal government has promised to invest over $50 million in stillbirth research as a report released today shows the rate of stillbirths and neonatal deaths in Australia has remained virtually unchanged for 20 years.

Health Minister Greg Hunt announced $52.4 millionin funding for perinatal services and support, including investment in stillbirth research, resource development, and improving the collection of national perinatal death data.

The announcement comes as a report released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) found that in 2015 and 2016, 5702 babies died in the perinatal period – a period of weeks immediately before,during and after birth.

AIHW spokesperson Dr Fadwa Al-Yaman said six babies are stillborn every day in Australia, and two babies die every day during the neonatal period of within 28 days of their birth.

‘‘Rates of perinatal death have remained relatively constantsince 1997,’’ Dr Al-Yaman said.

Professor Vicki Flenady, from the University of Queensland’s Centre of Research Excellence in Stillbirth, saidstillbirths make up the majority of perinatal deaths, and it’s those rates that remained unchanged.

‘‘There’s been a lack of real focus on these deaths,and a lackof appreciation of the fact that they are highly preventable,’’ Professor Flenadysaid.‘‘I think it’s driven by the fact that stillbirth is such a tragedy and it’s really hard to talk about, it’s often a hidden tragedy and what’s not seen can’t be fixed.’’

The Centre of Research Excellence in Stillbirth has received $3 million of the government’s fundingto help nationalise a project that aims to reduce the rate of stillbirth after 28 weeks of gestation.

Professor Flenady said she is confident the Australian Safe Baby Bundle project will reduce the rate by 20 per cent, in line with similar projects in the UK. ‘‘We’re looking at the potential of saving 2-300 babies’ lives every year if we get this implemented across these jurisdictions,’’ she said.

The project, which helps healthcare providers and mothers pick up on risk factors including slow baby growth and decreased fetal movement, will be spread from NSW, Victoria and Queensland to include the other states and territories, as well as rural and remote parts of Australia.

Mr Hunt said reducing the rate of stillbirth was a‘‘health and wellbeing priority’’.

Almost 30 per cent of all stillbirth deaths were caused by congenital anomaly, according to the AIHW report – however, the report said that data is complicated by the fact a proportion of those deaths were due to pregnancy terminations, including for some non-fatal abnormalities.

The second-highest cause of stillbirth, at 19.6 per cent, is unexplained death. Kate Lynch, chief executive of the Stillbirth Foundation Australia, said while further medical research was needed there were things people could do to reduce the risks.

‘‘Our advice to pregnant women is that they should go to sleep on their side from 28 weeks of pregnancy onwards, and pregnant mothers should seek immediate healthcare professional advice if they notice changes in their baby’s movements,’’ she said.