Why Stillbirth Numbers Aren't Dropping — Even Though Majority Are Preventable

Rachel Grumman Bender

Across the globe, there are more than 2.6 million stillbirths every year, according to new research published in the Lancet. Stillbirth is when a baby dies in the womb after the 20th week of pregnancy, according to the March of Dimes.

While maternal and child deaths have gone down significantly, the number of stillbirths in the third trimester of pregnancy have barely budged — even though the majority of stillbirths are preventable.

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Half of all stillbirths happen during labor and birth, typically after nine months of pregnancy, according to the research. “Labor, which is approximately, 24 to 36 hours, is a dangerous window of time for any baby,” Iffath Hoskins, an ob-gyn at NYU Langone Medical Center, tells Yahoo Parenting. That’s because a range of problems can occur, including umbilical cord accidents and placental abruption — a serious condition in which the placenta separates from the wall of the uterus.

Other causes of stillbirth include maternal diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity, as well as infections, such as malaria and syphilis in sub-Saharan Africa. These causes are largely preventable when pregnant women have access to high-quality care. But in the vast majority of cases (98 percent), stillbirths happen in low- and middle-income countries around the globe.

The researchers reported that, “at the current rate of progress, it will be more than 160 years before a pregnant woman in Africa has the same chance of her baby being born alive as a woman in a high-income country today.” That said, stillbirth is still a significant problem in higher income countries as well.

The researchers note that half of all stillbirths — a staggering 1.3 million deaths — could be prevented with improved quality of care during pregnancy, labor, and childbirth. Some countries are progressing faster than others on that front. For example, Rwanda is reducing stillbirths by 2.9 percent per year, making it the fastest progressing country in Africa. The researchers say this shows that most stillbirths are preventable and progress is possible.

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Along with the economic burden, from funeral costs to lost earnings from taking time off of work to physically recover and grieve, the research also brings to light the devastating emotional consequences that a stillbirth has on a family. More than 4.2 million women experience symptoms of depression for years after losing a baby in utero. In some countries, the women are stigmatized and socially isolated. “I don’t even call it depression — it’s post-traumatic stress disorder,” says Hoskins. “It can be triggered at any time. It doesn’t always [present as] depression. It could be anger, blame, or victimization. The triggers are very unpredictable. It’s also not only the mother going through this, but also the father.”

The researchers argue that high-quality care during pregnancy and labor is essential to save the lives of both mothers and infants, and to drive down the number of stillbirths around the world. “We already know which existing interventions save lives,” Joy Lawn, co-leader of the study and professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said in a release. “These babies should not be born in silence, their parents should not be grieving in silence, and the international community must break the silence as they have done for maternal and child deaths. The message is loud and clear — shockingly slow progress on stillbirths is unacceptable.”

(Photos: Getty Images)

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