Study: Stillbirth rates have risen 50% in women in parts of Africa, Middle East

Written by By Lindsay Howard, CNN

More than 1 in 5 women around the world experience stillbirths — a striking 50% increase since the 1990s, according to a study published Monday.

The researchers found that fewer women are dying in childbirth in general, but the trend seems to be reversing in parts of Africa and the Middle East. Stillbirths are deaths occurring in pregnancy and within the first week of birth — although they are considered low-risk.

Lead author Dr. Nadia Elhassan from University College London says she and her team expect the global trend to continue.

“We should put this down to increased awareness and knowledge among some communities about the risks. But, overall we should expect the trend to keep rising unless we take action to reduce these risks and women’s health needs,” she said in a statement.

“Formal health systems simply don’t exist in many of these regions, which only leads to the infant death rates being measured in lower cases, and to a more nuanced picture in stillbirth.”

The team, which was led by Elhassan and Dr. Elizaveta Petrovich from University College London’s School of Public Health, conducted the first global study of stillbirths, deaths that occur in pregnancy or within the first week of birth.

The 2018 study followed 96,243 pregnant women from across the globe. The women were recruited from maternal health surveys in Ghana, India, Pakistan, China, Jamaica, the Philippines, Brazil, Senegal, the United Kingdom, Cambodia, Colombia, Hong Kong, Kenya, Ethiopia, Mali, the United States, Estonia, South Africa, Serbia, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and Mexico.

Nearly 1.6 million deaths occur each year, says the World Health Organization. The organization estimates that about one-fifth of these deaths are from sudden unexpected deaths (SUDs), like asphyxia due to lack of oxygen from lack of ventilation, which can be fatal in cases involving babies of low birth weight.

The researchers also found significant increases in stillbirths caused by maternal factors, as opposed to accidents — meaning that is may be because women are improving their health.

The study finds an increase in stillbirths during the second and third trimesters, starting in the 1990s. Rates tend to be higher among black women and women in poorer countries, like sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Rates have been highest in the Philippines, China, and Jamaica. The rates in the United Kingdom are also higher than the global average.

The researchers say that reducing stillbirths requires better access to reproductive and prenatal health services, along with more professional and emotional support for pregnant women and new mothers.

“Women already have to fight for their rights — and it’s a struggle that I know many women are up against. That’s why it’s so important for us to find better ways to support women in pregnancy and for young women starting a family, even as the population ages.

“Every loss during pregnancy and early childhood is life-changing. All it takes is one unsafe abortion or one serious illness or injury, and it means a lifetime in the shadows,” Elhassan says.

Women in less developed countries can feel stigmatized, Elhassan notes. “However, all women deserve access to these basic services, and if mothers are able to support each other, things will really change,” she says.

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