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Volume 488: debated on Monday 2 March 2009

The Petition of Emma and Alexander Pheby (parents of Xanthe Pheby, stillborn on 4th April 2007),

Declares that every one in two hundred pregnancies in the United Kingdom end in stillbirth (around 3600 children a year) and yet in over half of these cases a cause for the baby's death is not established. There is currently very little funding for research into unexplained stillbirth;

Notes that in the 1980s important research was carried out into sudden infant death syndrome (otherwise known as SIDS or cot death) which in turn led in 1991 to a public health campaign and the numbers of cot deaths were dramatically cut;

Further declares that it is time for the United Kingdom Government to fund additional epidemiological studies and new scientific research to identify risk factors, causes and prevention strategies for unexplained stillbirths so that the country's high rates can be reduced.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government of the United Kingdom to put more resources into research in this area.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.—[Presented by Mr. Charles Clarke, Official Report, 3 February 2009; Vol. 487, c. 9P.]


Observations from the Secretary of State for Health:

The Government recognise that to lose a baby is a devastating experience and are committed to improving outcomes for both mother and baby.

We believe that it is important that bereaved parents receive the support they need. The Department has asked all NHS maternity care providers to ensure that all health services have comprehensive, culturally sensitive, services and facilities for the support of families who have experienced a neonatal death or stillbirth.

The Department has placed safety, quality and improving standards of care at the heart of its vision, this recognises that for the best health outcomes, it is important that women access maternity care at an early stage. To that end, maternity services are working to increase the number of women who have had their personal needs assessed, including whether their pregnancy is at high risk of complications, by the 12th week of pregnancy. This will enable an individualised care plan to be developed and has the potential to help reduce the number of stillbirths.

The Government’s investment in health research in England is made principally through the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and the Medical Research Council (MRC). NIHR and MRC funding arrangements generally preclude ring-fencing. Research proposals in all areas compete for the funding available. Applications are subject to peer review and judged in open competition, with awards being made on the basis of the scientific quality of the proposals made.

The Department of Health’s Policy Research Programme and the NIHR spent £2.2 million in 2007-08 on research related to stillbirth.

The Policy Research Programme supports the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit. The aim of the unit is to conduct research with a view to providing information that can improve the health and welfare of babies, mothers and their families and promote the effective use of resources in the perinatal health services. Much of the Unit’s work on the compromised foetus and baby focuses on or is linked to preterm birth.

The reasons for a stillbirth are complex. The Confidential Enquiry into Stillbirths and Deaths in Infancy (CESDI) was established in 1992 specifically to improve understanding of how the risks of death in late fetal life and infancy might be reduced.

Progress in reducing stillbirth has not been as significant as progress with reducing neonatal mortality. We are currently funding a successor to CESDI - the confidential inquiry line into maternal and child death (CEMACH). The findings from CEMACH’s most recent report into perinatal mortality, including stillbirth, suggest that demographic factors known to be associated with stillbirths such as obesity, ethnicity, deprivation and maternal age may be contributing to this lack of progress.

The MRC spent £1.2 million in 2007-08 on research related to stillbirth. The MRC also funds several large cohort studies which include a component of research into stillbirth and supports a large portfolio of underpinning reproductive medicine and paediatric research.