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Stillbirth a Higher Risk for New Australians

It appears we might still be failing some of our poorer migrant women, with new study finding that they have higher rates of stillbirth compared to Australian-born mothers.

Analysing data from stillbirths that occurred in Western Australia over the period 2005 to 2013, researchers found that while stillbirth rates overall were low and often much lower than in these migrant women’s country of birth, they were higher in non-Australian born women, especially in those women who were born in Africa.

Published recently in The Medical Journal of Australia, the study also took note of whether the deaths occurred in the antepartum period (between 20 weeks gestation up to before labour commences) or the intrapartum period (which is the period after labour has started), in an attempt to determine when and in whom intervention might be warranted.

Researchers found the key factor was the woman’s country of birth rather than her ethnic origin, as there appeared no difference in stillbirth rates among white and non-white Australian-born women.

However, women born in Africa were twice as likely to have a stillbirth in the weeks before going into labour compared with Australian-born women. And Indian-born women were 70% more likely. Migrant women born in other countries collectively had an increased risk of about 40% of an antepartum stillbirth.

And frighteningly, it appeared the rates of stillbirth occurring once labour had started were also much higher than that which occurs in Australian born women. Almost twice the risk for most migrant women, and more than double that again for African-born women.

“That the rate intrapartum stillbirth was twice as high among African women is especially worrying, as intrapartum stillbirth is regarded as preventable and indicative of inadequate quality of care,” the study authors wrote.

So why is this happening, the researchers asked. Why is it, that, despite access to the same standard of healthcare as the rest of the Australian population, these women are more at risk of losing their babies, especially African-born women and especially so late in the pregnancy?

The study authors suggest cultural issues may play a major role. They point to statistics that show African-born women are more likely to have pregnancies lasting 42 weeks or more, a well-recognised risk factor for stillbirth.

Qualitative studies have also determined there is often, particularly among African-born women, a deeply-held suspicion of interventions in pregnancy believing them to interfere with the natural process of childbirth and possibly having long-term repercussions. Consequently, there is not only a poorer attention to antenatal care but also a resistance to procedures such as induction of labour and caesarean section.

“More in-depth investigation of the patterns of health service use, pregnancy, and labour care for migrant women, particularly African migrants, is warranted,” the researchers said.

They suggest education is the most likely solution, but the changing of what is likely to be long-held and culturally-associated attitudes will need both sensitivity and intelligence.

“Culturally appropriate antenatal engagement and educational programs about the risk of stillbirth and the indications for and the safety of induction and related interventions may be useful preventive strategies,” they concluded.



Mozooni M, Preen DB, Pennell CE. Stillbirth in Western Australia, 2005–2013: the influence of maternal migration and ethnic origin. Med J Aust. 2018; 209(9): 394-400. DOI 10.5694/mja18.00362