Stillbirths Increased Last Year. Why Is Nobody Talking About It?

A leading charity says Covid had a "direct and indirect" impact on stillbirth rates.
Oscar Wong via Getty Images

After years of progress, the number of stillbirths increased across England and Wales in 2021 – but it’s not the story you’ll read about elsewhere.

When the new ONS data was released this week, most newspapers focused on a jolly little fact: last year, more babies were born out of wedlock than among married couples for the first time since records began.

But the figures also show there were 2,597 stillbirths in 2021, an increase of 226 from 2020.

These statistics were barely a footnote in most national newspapers, something the baby loss charity, Tommy’s, was disappointed by.

Kath Abrahams, chief executive at the charity says the latest figures are “unacceptable”. She believes they reflect the “direct and indirect” impact Covid-19 had on pregnant women and people in 2021.

“Indirectly, the pandemic had a significant impact on maternity services, putting them under greater pressure,” she tells HuffPost UK. “There were higher rates of stillbirth in January 2021, which coincided with the peak of the second wave of Covid-19.”

Throughout the pandemic, HuffPost UK reported on the disproportionate impact on maternity services, with pregnant women saying they felt “forgotten” as lockdown restrictions eased. While pubs reopened, mums-to-be reported having routine antenatal appointments cancelled or conducted over the phone.

Though there’s no research to link these practices directly to stillbirth rates, the individual stories paint a picture of incomplete care, at a time of high-anxiety for pregnant women.

Pregnant women also faced misinformation regarding vaccine safety, with some even mistakingly told not to take the jab at vaccine centres. Data from October 2021 found just 15% of pregnant women were fully vaccinated amidst the fear and confusion.

Because of this, Tommy’s says Covid-19 infection is likely to have had a direct impact on the 2021 stillbirth rate.

“Our research has shown that getting Covid-19 during pregnancy could cause problems in the placenta, increasing the risk of pregnancy complications, which is why it’s important pregnant women and people get vaccinated if they can,” Abrahams says.

“Rates of stillbirth had been following a consistent decline over recent years, and we believe 2021’s increase is unacceptable. It highlights exactly why we need to increase efforts to meet NHS England’s aim of reducing stillbirth rates by 50% by 2025.”

The data also uncovered that stillbirth rates differed across the country last year, with more deprived areas, including the North East and Yorkshire, experiencing higher rates than the most affluent regions.

“It is unacceptable that who you are and where you live continues to have an impact on whether your baby is born healthy – and it’s vital that our government and health services continue to focus on tackling these inequalities,” Abrahams adds.

“Action to reduce stillbirth must be a national priority as health services recover following the Covid-19 pandemic, and more work must be done to understand the reasons for the increase in stillbirths and help improve care for pregnant women and people at risk.”

Commenting on the latest figures, Professor Asma Khalil, spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said every stillbirth “is a tragedy for the families affected as well as the maternity staff involved”.

“Stillbirth rates are still higher in the UK than many other high-income countries and vary widely across the UK,” she said. “We continue to advise women who have concerns or worries about their or their baby’s health – including the baby’s movements – to seek medical advice from their midwife or hospital as soon as possible. We also advise pregnant women to ensure they are fully vaccinated against Covid as this can increase the risk of stillbirth.”

HuffPost UK contacted the Department of Health and Social Care about the increased stillbirth rates, sharing the concerns raised by Tommy’s about stretched maternity services.

In response, a DHSC spokesperson told us: “We are committed to making the NHS the best place in the world to give birth through personalised, high-quality support.

“Since 2010, the rate of stillbirths has reduced by 20.9%, the rate of neonatal mortality for babies born over 24 weeks has reduced by 36% and maternal mortality has reduced by 17%.

“The NHS is investing £127m into the maternity system in the next year to support the workforce and improve neonatal care – which is on top of £95m to recruit 1,200 more midwives and 100 more consultant obstetricians.”