Over 3,000 pregnancies in the UK end in stillbirths each year, meaning that the UK has one of the worst rates among developed countries. A leading obstetrician has published new research that suggests over half of stillbirths could be prevented if the NHS provided additional scans during pregnancy.
Professor Nicolaides, of King's College Hospital in London, is famed for having developed the scan at 12 weeks that is now routinely used to detect Down's Syndrome in all women during pregnancy. His newly published research concludes that a straightforward and cost-effective Doppler scan could more than halve the number of stillbirths in the UK each year.
A Doppler scan can be used to assess the blood flow between mother and baby within the placenta during pregnancy. The placenta facilitates the exchange of vital oxygen and nutrients between mother and unborn baby. Many stillbirths occur because the placenta fails during the late stages of pregnancy. If this happens, the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the baby is disrupted putting the baby at huge risk. The problem is more likely to occur in the later stages of pregnancy but, according to Professor Nicolaides's findings, this could be predicted in over 90% of cases by a Doppler scan as early as 12 weeks.
Professor Nicolaides now routinely arranges Doppler scanning of his NHS patients at 12, 22 and 32 weeks of pregnancy. This monitoring has dramatically increased the detection rate of placental problems identified before the placenta fails. In many cases, the baby can then be delivered before the placenta fails by Caesarian section, if necessary. The same practice at St George's Hospital in London has reportedly led to a decrease of more than 50% in the stillbirth rate over the last three years.
At the moment, however, national guidelines mean that most hospitals offer these scans to fewer than one in five women who are deemed to be at sufficiently high risk.
Welcoming news of this research, Andrew Clayton of Penningtons Manches' clinical negligence team said: "Doppler scans are a straightforward, non-invasive and relatively cheap check that, with proper resourcing could easily be carried out in all pregnancies.
"Stillbirths are devastating for the women who suffer them and their wider families, with significant short- and long-term implications for the health and wellbeing of all those involved. Any grief is highly personal but social attitudes to stillbirth reflect the UK's poor record in undervaluing the loss of an unborn baby, despite the strong work of charities including SANDS and BLISS. The UK has a high stillbirth rate so far more understanding and action is needed if this is to be reduced. In the meantime, Professor Nicolaides's research suggests the NHS could implement basic checks that could save over 1,500 lives a year. Immediate action needs to be taken."