A child health expert has called for urgent action after infant mortality rose for the third year running and was highest in the most deprived areas.
Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said it was “extremely worrying” the infant mortality rate had increased yet again and that the situation has significantly worsened since 2014.
In 2017 2,636 babies died before their first birthday, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). This was actually a slight decrease on the previous year, but because there were fewer live births in 2017 this meant the infant mortality rate increased to 3.9 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared with 3.8 per 1,000 in 2016.
The study also revealed the infant mortality rate was highest in the most deprived areas of England at 5.2 deaths per 1,000 live births and lowest in the least deprived areas at 2.7 deaths per 1,000.
Prof Viner said: “Social inequalities are a major factor in causing infant deaths, and the risk of a baby dying dramatically increases with the level of maternal deprivation. Infants are more than twice as likely to die in England and Wales if they are born into a poor family rather than a wealthy one, and the gap is widening.
“The causes behind child deaths are complex, but we know that infant mortality is heavily linked to the mother’s health during pregnancy, with smoking, poor nutrition, and substance misuse all having a highly negative impact. Maternal age plays a significant factor too – in the UK, over five percent of mothers are aged under 20 years, and just under 20 percent are aged 35 years and over, which are the age ranges with the highest risk of infant mortality.”
The ONS study also showed the infant mortality rate was highest among low birthweight babies (under 2,500 grams) at 34.7 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2017, which was an increase of 5.8 per cent from 2016.
Prof Viner said: “It is possible that some of the increase relates to changes in the proportion of babies born prematurely and at low birth weight. Yet regardless of this, the UK has long had a poor record on infant mortality compared with similar countries.
“To address the UK’s dismal infant mortality rates, it is paramount that the government takes immediate steps to tackle social inequality and improve maternal and early years care.
“Reducing maternal deprivation and providing properly funded supportive services to help women during pregnancy and early motherhood would begin to reverse these sobering statistics.”
He welcomed the announcements on improvements in maternal and newborn services in the NHS Long-term Plan but said these needed to be implemented urgently.
The professor added: “We also call for a reversal of the cuts to public health budgets which have slashed health visitor numbers. Babies and their mothers deserve better.”
His concerns were echoed Anna Feuchtwang, the chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau and chair of End Child Poverty.
She said: “There are over four million children living in poverty across the UK, and in some areas it has become the rule rather the exception. This new data highlights one of the most lamentable aspects of raising a family on a low income, showing how the most deprived areas also have the highest rates of infant mortality.”
The campaigner demanded adequate and targeted investment in support for families living in the most deprived areas. She too wants to see public health cuts reversed and more backing for health visitors and maternity services.
The charity chief added: “Alongside infant health measures, we urgently need Government to set a course of action that will free our children from the grip of poverty, and set out an ambitious plan to tackle deprivation.”
The ONS study also showed infant mortality rates had improved from 1980 to 2014. The rate decreased from 12.0 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1980 to a record low of 3.6 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2014.
There has been a drop in infant deaths in both the most and least deprived areas compared with 2008, but the rate in the most deprived areas has decreased more, by 23.5 per cent.
Vasita Patel, from the vital statistics outputs branch of the Office for National Statistics said: “The infant mortality rate had been reducing since the 1980s, but since an all-time low in 2014 the rate has increased every year between 2014 to 2017. These changes are small and subject to random fluctuations but when compared directly, the rate in 2017 is significantly higher than 2014. However further monitoring over the next few years is needed to confirm a change in the trend.”
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “Every death of a child is a tragedy and we are committed to halving rates of stillbirths, neonatal deaths and brain injuries after birth by 2025.
“The NHS has made good progress to bring down infant mortality rates over the last decade and our Long Term Plan will make the NHS one of the best places in the world to give birth.”
She also pointed to new support measures for mothers and babies that are being introduced, and a major redesign of neonatal services, led by an expansion in staff numbers.