After two spikes in newborn baby death rates in six months, the Scottish government has ordered a new investigation into the deaths. It announced the inquiry on its website on September 30th.
The normal average death rate of newborns—children who die before reaching 28 days after birth—is just over 2 per 1,000 births, though the actual rate month to month can vary. Alarms went off when the newborn death rate climbed to almost 5 per 1, 000 births, twice within six months.
The BBC reports that in September 2021, at least 21 babies under four weeks old died, a rate of 4.9 per 1,000 births, and in March 2022, at least 18 died, the equivalent of 4.6 per 1,000 births. The rates exceeded the expected normal ranges and hit the threshold to trigger an investigation.
The September 2021 death rate spike has already been looked into, but with two closely timed incidences of a sharp rise in newborn deaths detected, the new investigation will cover the twelve-month period that includes both spikes, from April 2021 through March 2022.
The initial investigation into the September 2021 rise blamed the high death rate on an increase in preterm births, a factor known to increase the chances of infant death.
Investigators also suspected COVD-19 infections, though the study denied a direct link with the virus, according to the BBC. The report, though, indicates COVID infection may play a role, since it raises the “chance of problems for both mother and baby,” particularly in the event of preterm deliveries.
“We know, for instance, that when pregnant women have COVID they can become seriously unwell, and in order to protect the mother and baby that can lead to preterm deliveries,” Dr. Sarah Stock, an expert in maternal and foetal health at the University of Edinburgh, told the BBC in November 2021. “Preterm delivery is the biggest driver of neonatal mortality.”
Additionally, a Scottish Intensive Care Audit Group report from October 2021 found a high rate of women in intensive care units in the spring and summer of 2021—a full two years after the beginning of the pandemic. It found that more than 20% of women admitted to intensive care for COVID-19 since May 2021 were pregnant or had recently given birth.
According to the report, 42 pregnant women had been admitted to the ICU since 18 May 2021, compared with 25 in the first two waves of the pandemic.
Some doctors have also attributed the rise in newborn deaths to an overburdened health system. “We also know that the pandemic has put a lot of pressure on health services and that could be having an impact,” Stock told the BBC.
Also, the infant mortality rate—that of babies up to a year old—was the highest in ten years in 2021, the BBC reports. In June 2021, it reached 3.9 compared to 3.1 in June of 2020. The number emerged as part of the investigation into newborn deaths but did not reach the threshold to trigger greater scrutiny.
The investigation into newborn deaths is expected to take approximately six months.