Ethnic disparities in baby mortality rates 'disgusting' as government urged to take action

Having children means everything to Vaishali Bamania, who learned she had cancer while trying for a baby in the months after marrying husband Rahul. 

She fought womb cancer and won, then went through an 18-month journey on IVF to conceive.

"We were happy, we felt all our dreams had come true and the 18-month treatment was worth it," she said.

"We thought all of this is behind us now and we can move on and bring a baby home in nine months."

Their daughter Jaya was born at 22 weeks on 19 August 2019. She died the same day.

"She was born alive. We had 14 minutes with her, and then she stopped breathing," Vaishali added.

Throughout her pregnancy Vaishali was told she was "high risk", but said she did not receive any additional care such as scans and blood tests.

And when she informed midwives she was experiencing unusual symptoms, she said her concerns were ignored.

Vaishali understands the death of a baby is not a rare event, around 13 die shortly before, during or soon after birth every day in the UK.

But she said the fact there continues to be stark inequalities in outcomes for babies of different ethnicities in the UK is "disgusting".

"I shouldn't be more likely to lose my baby because of the colour of my skin. To know it's more likely to happen to me or to someone who's black, because of their ethnicity, it's just shocking.

"We are in 2024."

She joined other bereaved parents who are supported by Sands charity and have written an open letter to the newly-formed government urging them to address the disparities.

Stillbirth rates continue to be higher for babies of black ethnicity (7.52 per 1,000 total births) and babies of Asian ethnicity (5.15 per 1,000 total births) compared to babies of white ethnicity (3.30 per 1,000 total births).

There was a very small increase in stillbirth rates from 2020 for babies of white and Asian ethnicity, but a larger rise for babies of black ethnicity representing a widening of inequalities.

For neonatal mortality, the rate for babies of black ethnicity increased to 2.94 per 1,000 live births, meaning this group now has the highest rate of neonatal mortality.

There was a fall in the neonatal mortality rate for babies of Asian ethnicity (2.22 per 1,000 births).

The neonatal mortality rate for babies of white ethnicity increased but remained lower than rates for black and Asian ethnicities at 1.68 per 1,000 live births.

"It's totally unacceptable that there are these disparities and desperately sad because we know that it doesn't have to be like this," said Clea Harmer, CEO of Sands.

"I think it sends the saddest and most unacceptable message to these women that actually, the fact that their babies have a different skin colour, they aren't seen as equal and as important as white babies.

"I think nobody would want that message or that reality.

"I think any maternity improvement programme has to address inequalities as part of its overall structure and it's really important to have a specific target for inequalities as part of its overall structure."

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An NHS spokesperson said: "It is unacceptable for black and Asian mothers and their babies to experience disparities in care, and while the NHS has made improvements to maternity services over the last decade, we know much more work is needed to tackle inequalities and ensure that all women and families, receive high-quality care before, during and after their pregnancy.

"We are investing an additional £10m of funding over the next year to reduce inequalities - this includes offering enhanced midwifery continuity of carer teams where safe staffing is in place and extra support for women living in the most deprived areas who are more likely to experience adverse outcomes during pregnancy and birth."