Unacceptable Number Of Stillbirths In Australia A 'Call To Arms'

While decreasing among some groups, stillbirth numbers are still far too high for a country considered one of the safest places in the world to have children, experts warn.

In 2015 and 2016, more than 5,500 babies died in the perinatal period, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare revealed on Thursday.

This period includes the time immediately before or after birth, and includes stillbirths and neonatal deaths -- that is, death within the first four weeks of life.

Image: Getty

In Australia, about six babies are stillborn every day, while two die in the neonatal period.

It's a number that hasn't changed much in two decades -- and advocates are frustrated it's not of greater importance amongst policy-makers.

"The hard truth is that the national stillbirth toll dwarfs the national road toll, and if this report is not a call to arms for governments, policy-makers and the medical profession, I don’t know what is," Kate Lynch, CEO of the Stillbirth Foundation Australia, said in a statement to 10 daily.

"Australia is not doing enough and can do better than this. Our stillbirth rate is much higher than that of other countries such as the UK and New Zealand.

"Stillbirth rates are still significantly higher amongst Aboriginal people, and people in rural and regional areas, and we can do better than that, too."

The Stillbirths and Neonatal Deaths in Australia 2015-16 report, released on Thursday, shows fewer stillbirths are occurring in the third trimester of pregnancy, dropping from 3.4 per 1,000 births in 1997, to 2.1 in 2016.

Stillbirths and neonatal births at a glance. Image: AIHW

There has also been a decline in the number of newborn babies born in the third trimester who die within the first month after birth.

"Rates of perinatal death have remained relatively constant since 1997," AIHW spokesperson Dr Fadwa Al-Yaman said of the report's findings.

"However, there have been improvements among some groups."

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Perinatal mortality rates have also decreased among babies born to Indigenous mothers.

"Between 2005 and 2016, the rate of stillbirth among babies born to Indigenous women fell from 11.8 to 10.5 per 1000 births," Dr Al-Yaman said.

"Most notably, the neonatal death rate for babies of Indigenous women fell from 7.4 to 4.3 per 1000 live births."

But the rates of perinatal death for Indigenous-born babies are still higher compared to babies of non-Indigenous women.

Rates are also higher for women living outside of major cities and in disadvantaged areas, increasing with remoteness and becoming "notably higher" for babies born in very remote areas.

During 2015 and 2016, almost 30 percent of all perinatal deaths were caused by congenital anomaly, which can include conditions such as heart or neural tube defects.

Worldwide, congenital anomalies kill an estimated 303,000 newborns within four weeks of birth every year, according to the World Health Organisation.

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Last year, the Australian Senate Select Inquiry on Stillbirth developed the first national set of recommendations aimed at reducing the rate of stillbirth in the country -- a roadmap to addressing the issue.

The report, which was put together by the Liberals, Labor and the Greens, included steps addressing education, research and bereavement support.

Kristina Keneally. Image: AAP

The bi-partisan Senate inquiry was spearheaded by Labor senator Kristina Keneally, who has spoken openly about the devastating impact of her daughter's stillbirth.

"In the 20 years since I gave birth to Caroline, I have gone through guilt and grief, sorrow and depression, and often anger," Keneally wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald.

"We can’t wait another 20 years to start. We can prevent stillbirth and we can save babies’ lives."

In May of this year, the Victorian government became the first in Australia to set a target to reduce stillbirth by 20 per cent by 2022.

The Morrison government is yet to respond.