NI's 'unacceptable' stillbirths death toll: two babies every single week
Northern Ireland is losing two babies every week to stillbirth a figure branded as "totally unacceptable" by a national bereavement charity.
And although the overall infant death toll has shown a slight downward trend in recent years, the Stillborn and Neonatal Death Society (Sands) said it remains alarmingly high, with 15 babies dying in the UK every day.
Sands Northern Ireland co-ordinator Steven Guy has urged politicians to support a forthcoming national campaign to find ways of further reducing the death toll by improving care, and easing the heartbreak of affected parents.
"There are two of these tragic events in Northern Ireland every week and the national figure remains totally unacceptable. We have to improve that," said Mr Guy, who lost daughter Danielle to stillbirth 24 years ago.
"There were 17 babies dying every day in the UK from stillbirth or neonatal death in 2009; there are 15 now. We must bring that number down."
Figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency show that there were 76 stillbirths here in 2015 - but Mr Guy claims the true figure is around 100 a year.
"There is a grey area where babies who die at, say, 23 weeks plus a number of days are not officially recorded as stillborn," he said.
"But we in Sands are recognising them as just that."
In official terms, stillbirth is the loss of a baby before birth, with death occurring in the womb or during labour, on or after the 24th week of pregnancy.
Belfast woman Alanna Salter, who lost her first child to stillbirth nearly two years ago, said the anguish associated with the experience was "indescribable".
In a moving interview in the Belfast Telegraph today, Mrs Salter also spoke of the trauma of having to go through with the birth of baby Isobel Olivia, whom she knew was already dead.
And the 33-year-old described the medics' decision to refuse her an immediate Caesarian section as "barbaric".
She and husband Simon were also sent home for 24 hours - it would have been 48 if they hadn't complained - after learning that Olivia had died in the womb due to what was diagnosed later as a rare placenta failure.
And, despite being in a private room in the Royal Victoria - one of four Northern Ireland hospitals without a bereavement suite for parents - there was little privacy to grieve, with the sound of healthy newborns coming through the walls.
Later, when family members came to visit the heartbroken couple, they were forced to "walk through a corridor full of balloons and everyone being happy".
Also, no one had prepared them for the additional anguish of seeing little Olivia's scarred body after it was returned to them following the post-mortem. Alanna and Simon have now set up a website to support other parents who have had similar, harrowing experiences.
Simon (33) said: "We didn't make an official complaint to the hospital but we made a report of everything and went through it with them afterwards."
In a statement, the Belfast Trust said the Royal Jubilee Maternity staff "fully recognised how sad and difficult a time this has been" for the couple.
The Department of Health said that the new maternity hospital at the Royal will include four "quiet" delivery rooms, which will be used by mothers and their partners in the event of bereavement.
"The new neonatology unit will have 15 single rooms for seriously ill babies, which will afford both privacy and dignity for end-of-life care," a statement said.
"Western Health and Social Care Trust have been working with Sands on the design and planning of a bereavement suite in Altnagelvin." Former Health Minister Michelle O'Neill said she was "very conscious of the tragedy and trauma caused to families by the loss of a baby".
"The implementation by the health and social care system of my department's maternity strategy is helping ensure high quality services across the North and reduce preventable tragedies," she said.
"However, unfortunately some losses are not preventable. In those circumstances, the importance of advice, information and support for families cannot be understated."
Mr Guy said Sands had been working tirelessly with the trusts and health professionals to improve conditions for parents who are confronted with these heartrending ordeals.
He also said a national campaign will be launched later this year to highlight that 15 babies are stillborn every day across the UK.
Medical journal The Lancet said the UK's stillbirth rate of about one in 200 births was one of the worst among the world's richest nations, ranking 21 out of 35, and behind poorer countries like Poland, Croatia and Slovakia.
The Sands NI helpline can be contacted on 07740 993450.