The number of deaths in newborn babies could be slashed dramatically if all areas had the same neonatal mortality rates as the most affluent, according to research published today.
Deaths in newborns are over twice as high in the most deprived areas compared to the least deprived, research from the University of Leicester, published today on bmj.com, has found.
Around eight out of 10 of these additional deaths are due to premature birth and congenital anomalies (birth defects) – suggesting that more needs to be done to address these, the researchers, led by Dr Lucy Smith, say.
Although the research was based on births in England, the findings are relevant to Scotland, where, earlier this week, reports showed that health inequalities persist despite efforts to close the gap.
The reports, from the Information Services Division of NHS Scotland and NHS Health Scotland found that life expectancy differed widely according to where people live and that inequalities have largely remained “unchanged” in the last decade.
The authors of the Leicester research warn that a UK government target of reducing the relative gap between the affluent and deprived populations in England and Wales (by 10 per cent by 2010) is unlikely to be achieved and that the deprivation gap appears to be widening.
The researchers assigned a deprivation score to all neonatal deaths in England from 1 January 1997 to 31 December 2007, depending on where the mother lived.
More than 18,500 newborn babies died during this time, most commonly due to premature birth and birth defects, and were twice as high in the most deprived areas.
“Neonatal deaths would be 39 per cent lower if all areas had the same neonatal mortality rates as the least deprived areas,” the authors say. “Almost 80 per cent of the deprivation gap in neonatal mortality in England is the result of differences in deaths related to either immaturity or congenital anomalies.
“The current implementation strategy in England to reduce the relative deprivation gap does not adequately tackle these two main causes of death.
“Similar patterns probably exist in other developed countries,” they add.
Government initiatives (in England) have been successful to some extent, the authors say, because the number of neonatal deaths in deprived areas has fallen.
But they point out that measures to reduce the deprivation gap have focused on increasing breastfeeding rates and reducing obesity, smoking and teenage pregnancy, warning: “Unless interventions target specifically the risk of very premature birth and potentially lethal congenital abnormalities, the effect on the deprivation gap is likely to be minor.”