Everything Pregnancy

New Stillbirth Research Calls Attention to an International Crisis in Care

The report shows shockingly slow progress on reducing stillbirths, even in more developed countries.

hands in heart on stomach, black and white Shutterstock
New research on stillbirths highlights the so-called "silent problem" that continues to grow globally, even here in the U.S.

Unthinkably, 2.6 million babies are stillborn every year around the world, and it's believed at least half could be prevented with improvement in the quality of care.

"We must give a voice to the mothers of 7,200 babies stillborn around the world every day. There is a common misperception that many of the deaths are inevitable, but our research shows most stillbirths are preventable," says Professor Joy Lawn from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. "We already know which existing interventions save lives. 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."

It isn't surprising the report confirms stillbirth is most prevalent in low to middle-income countries; 98 percent of stillbirths occur there. Nevertheless, it's hard to digest this fact: At the current rate, it will be 160 years before a woman in Africa has the same chance of her baby surviving birth as a woman living in a country like the United States. "Childbirth is one of the most risky moments of life for both mothers and babies," says UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, in cooperation with the World Health Organization and UNICEF, determined two-thirds of the world's stillbirths occur in just 10 nations, including India, Pakistan, and Nigeria. The countries with the lowest rates include Iceland, Denmark, Finland, and the Netherlands, the latter of which is also making the fastest progress in reducing stillbirths.

Meanwhile, the U.S. was called out as making some of the slowest progress in this area, with a reduction of just 0.4 percent annually. Contrast that with the Netherlands' rate of 6.8 percent and you get the very disturbing picture. "Ending Preventable Stillbirth" research, published in The Lancet, even finds the annual rate of reduction for stillbirths lags far behind that for maternal and child death.

Researchers hope their report will help to focus global efforts on improving prenatal care, and treating controllable factors that lead to stillbirth, such as pregnancy infections and obesity. They also want to call attention to inequality around the world.

Another goal of the research is to help families gain access to psychological help if needed. As many as 4.2 million women are living with depression for years after loss, and fathers are suffering too as a result of this "silent problem."

"The consequences of stillbirth have been hugely underestimated," Says Dr. Alexander Heazell, the study's co-author. "Our research suggests that grief and symptoms of depression after stillbirth often endure for many years. It is vital we, as carers, see the loss through the eyes of those parents affected to provide sensitive and respectful bereavement care. We know that something as simple as supporting parents to see and hold their baby and providing bereavement support can reduce the long-term negative impact of stillbirth. Dealing with stillbirth can also have a psychological impact on health workers; consequently, better training and provision of support for those looking after affected families should also be a priority."

The takeaway? Proper prenatal care cannot be undervalued, nor can appropriate support during labor and delivery, no matter where you live.

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Follow her on Twitter (@Spitupnsuburbs), where she chronicles her love of exercising and drinking coffee, but never simultaneously.