Mystery spike in baby deaths sparks national investigation

Post-neonatal deaths breached the upper warning limit in April, Public Health Scotland figures show.

Spike in deaths among babies prompts investigation by Public Health Scotland iStock

Public health experts have launched an investigation after Scotland recorded a spike in the number of deaths among infants.

Figures from Public Health Scotland (PHS) show post-neonatal deaths reached 2.8 per 1,000 live births in April – just above the upper control limit.

PHS said it detected “no unusual patterns” in the cause of the deaths which it said were not due to any issues in maternity and neo-natal care in the NHS.

Post-neonatal deaths refer to those after the first four weeks of a child’s life but before the first year.

The health agency previously announced an expert review of two previous spikes in deaths among infants.

Retired consultant neonatologist Dr Helen Mactier will investigate the issue after two rises were recorded in September 2021 and March 2022. A total of 29 infants died.

The latest figures from PHS also show the rate of stillbirths is at a record five-year high with 6.1 out of 1,000 live births recorded in April.

While the number is below the control limit needed to launch an investigation they are above the warning limit.

The rate of both stillbirths and neonatal death returned to normal levels in May.

PHS said stillbirths and infant deaths remain “relatively rare events in Scotland” and that it’s normal for these to fluctuate over time by chance.

It said the control limit – which has been breached for post-neonatal deaths – is there to identify “unusual behaviour”.

Dr Lynda Fenton, Consultant at PHS, said: “Every stillbirth and infant death is a tragedy for the families involved.

“PHS has reviewed the death records of the babies that died in the post-neonatal period in April 2023 to confirm that no unusual patterns in cause of death are evident. 

“There is also currently no evidence that the increase in infant mortality is due to problems in maternity or neonatal health services.

“We monitor stillbirths and infant deaths on a monthly basis and report findings through the Wider Impacts of Covid-19 dashboard.

“We will continue to work with our partners to contribute towards reducing stillbirth and infant deaths as far as possible.”

A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said: “Every baby’s death is a tragedy and has a profound impact on their loved ones.

“We are committed to ensuring that all maternity care is as safe as possible for mothers and babies and that when deaths occur, any improvements are identified and acted on.

“The overall trend is for a continual decline in numbers of stillbirths in Scotland, and since 2007 we have seen a 35% decline in stillbirths thanks to the hard work of maternity professionals to review and learn lessons from stillbirths when they occur and our Scottish Patient Safety Programme.

“Due to the low number, we expect to see monthly fluctuations in the data, but the overall trend remains downwards.”

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