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Belfast has worst stillbirth rate in UK - medics say abortion laws skew figures

But medics insist figures skewed by NI abortion laws

By Victoria O'Hara

Published 16/02/2016

A report on mortality rates has revealed that the Belfast Trust topped a list of 21 hospital trusts across the UK given a
A report on mortality rates has revealed that the Belfast Trust topped a list of 21 hospital trusts across the UK given a "red light" warning for its high mortality rates amongst stillborn and newborn babies
Anne Marie Smyth with son Sam at home

Belfast hospitals have been labelled the worst in the UK for stillbirths, leading to serious concerns over the standard of neonatal care.

A report on mortality rates has revealed that the Belfast Trust topped a list of 21 hospital trusts across the UK given a "red light" warning for its high mortality rates amongst stillborn and newborn babies.

Co Down woman Anne Marie Smyth, whose baby son Colin was stillborn in 2010 at the Ulster Hospital, said the figures were "extremely worrying".

She added that the report "put weight behind the need for more work to be done for change and improvements". The report - compiled by MBRRACE-UK(Mothers and Babies: Reducing Risk through Audits and Confidential Enquiries across the UK), a group of academics, charities and institutions which carries out inquiries into maternity deaths - showed that in Belfast hospitals more than nine per 1,000 infants were stillborn or died within 28 days of being born.

However, leading midwives have strongly refuted the findings, saying that an adjustment to the statistics to reflect the differences in abortion laws in Northern Ireland compared to other parts of the UK had not been carried out in December's publication.

They said that earlier figures had been altered to reflect the differences in abortion laws.

The health authorities included in the list have stillbirth and neonatal death rates more than 10% higher than the average in ­other health boards of the same size.

Campaigners in the province have said there is a need for an urgent review to be carried out about how services could be improved.

Each of the 21 health authorities was asked to conduct reviews to identify changes to bring down the rates. However, it has emerged Belfast has not yet carried out the overall review.

Babies are classed stillborn if they die after 24 weeks of pregnancy and up to birth, which is when one in three stillbirths occur - a time when a baby is likely to survive outside the womb had they been delivered earlier.

Ms Smyth, from Downpatrick, said more work needs to be done to improve services for families touched by the death of a baby. The 37-year-old civil servant, who now is involved in the bereavement support charity Sands (Stillbirth and Neonatal Death) said: "I think these figures put weight behind the need for more work to be done for change and improvements.

"I find this extremely worrying. So many parents are left asking why this terrible loss happened to them."

Ms Smyth added: "We are making progress slowly in working with the trusts to get more literature out there for expectant mums about support. But I do think there needs to be action taken to understand why this happens."

But Breedagh Hughes, director of the Royal College of Midwives in Northern Ireland, said she believed the report was "flawed".

"This particular report didn't adjust the figures to reflect the very high figures of congenital anomalies in Northern Ireland."

Ms Hughes said the high level is not linked to staff shortages or standards of care and when the adjustment is made the stillbirth rate is usually around the same as the UK average.

A spokesman for the Belfast Trust said that more complex and rare conditions are managed at the maternity service in the Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital.

"The rates of perinatal death in Northern Ireland will partially reflect differences in the law relating to termination of pregnancy with a greater proportion of babies with severe congenital anomalies being carried to term but then dying after birth in comparison to the rest of the UK."

For help or support contact Sands NI 07740993450.

Case study: ‘It’s still a taboo subject but parents need support’

Anne Marie Smyth from Downpatrick was plunged into grief when her son Colin was stillborn in September 2010. He was one of four babies on average a week that are stillborn in Northern Ireland.

Anne Marie was nine days overdue when, 24 hours before it was planned for her to be induced, she felt she was going into labour.

After a scan at Downpatrick Midwifery Unit, she was sent to the Ulster Hospital where a consultant broke the news they could not detect her baby’s heartbeat. “I was devastated,” she said.  She now campaigns for better awareness of the impact of stillbirths. “I found the Sands organisation very supportive and I decided to give something back to them. I understand the enormous pain and grief that other parents will go through. This does not just affect the mum and dad — stillbirth has a ripple affect across the family.

“A lot of parents are left just wondering why this has happened. Many experience delays in getting post mortem results. It is happening so frequently and is still a taboo subject. People need to feel they are not alone and that they got as much information as possible throughout the pregnancy.”

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