The Global Launch of the Lancet Series on Ending Preventable Stillbirths took place at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine on January 19, 2016. Moving, powerful and emotional, the event demonstrated a new and lasting global commitment to ending an “invisible epidemic”. In the mere hour and a half the audience spent in the John Snow Lecture Theatre 450 families would suffer the pain of a stillborn child. Over the course of the evening experts, academics and parents came together to openly discuss a serious global issue. The overarching message of the evening was starkly apparent; the time for silence is over and the commitment to ending preventable stillbirths begins now.
The launch began with an opening address by Richard Horton, Editor in Chief of the Lancet, who presented the series as an “extraordinary opportunity” in the new era of the Sustainable Development Goals. The inclusion of stillbirths on the agenda is a remarkable political commitment, but the latent issue remains – how to make the Lancet series work practically. It is the lack of funding that will be the final hurdle for this critical issue. The Lancet series was not funded, and without funding this campaign and the goals outlined in the SDG’s will not be achievable.
It will be 160 years before a baby in Africa will have the same risk of stillbirth as a baby in a high income country. Professor Joy Lawn, Director of MARCH and lead of the Lancet series, explained this as she walked the audience through the series and the data they had collected. The new global agenda issued by the SDG’s has an explicit target for child survival, but it is apparent that progress for stillbirth is not likely to change without a global agenda. But how do we make ending preventable stillbirth a reality?
2.6 million women lose a baby in the last three months of pregnancy. In Africa, 1.3 million babies die in the process of labour. It is a myth that there are no preventable stillbirths. There is one simple solution, one main theme that cropped up time and time again at the launch; end the silence. Talking about stillbirth is the way to raise awareness and practically tackle the issue. Stillbirth is barely mentioned in global reports and it is seldom spoken about in mainstream media. The lack of discussion has resulted in a multitude of harmful misconceptions surrounding stillbirth; Dr Alex Heazell, University of Manchester, explained the psychological and emotional impact stillbirth has on the family. Behind each death is a story, and one such story highlighted some of the harmful misconceptions Dr Heazell spoke about. A Canadian woman who had suffered a stillbirth said, “Many women told me that my son’s death was likely nature taking care of its mistakes”. The impact of stillbirth does not end with the death of the child; it has a lasting effect on the mother and father. The burden of stillbirth spreads far and wide, “like the ripples of a stone hitting the water”. The series in the Lancet aims to eradicate the stigma of stillbirth and challenge the misconceptions that have sadly become ingrained in many societies.
The evening drew to a close with a panel discussion. Toyin Saraki, Founder-President of the Wellbeing Foundation, spoke with incredible eloquence and poignancy on the impact of stillbirth. Having suffered the pain of a stillborn child, her words resonated among the audience. Saraki emphasised the need for midwives, “your midwife should be your best friend, the shoulder you can lean on, the hand that you can hold”. She expressed her desire to see the world remove the silence surrounding stillbirth so that no one would have to go through the painful aftermath of her own stillbirth. To this day, she still does not know where her child was buried.
This event would not have been possible without the cooperation of parents who have experienced the trauma of a stillborn child. Afterwards, I spoke to Mel and David; two parents who have been involved in charities dedicated to helping families who have suffered a stillbirth. Mel, who runs the charity Towards Tomorrow Together, said “I think it’s really, really important we’ve been able to be invited, and given the opportunity to share our stories. Because I think it’s really easy for researchers to forget that there are families really affected by this. We need to keep the families at the centre of everything.”
David was equally passionate about keeping families at the centre of the subject matter, “It’s really exciting to see a bunch of academics who are passionate about pursuing the subject matter. I think it’s really important to keep grounded in the individual stories.” It seemed as though the personal stories that gave the event its emotional core resonated with many who attended. Connie Mackworth-Young, a student at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, commented “It was such an interesting evening, and it was particularly powerful to hear from parents who have experience the trauma of a stillbirth”.
The goal of the launch was simple; the time for silence is over. While there may be obstacles that lie in wait for the practical future of this series, stillbirth now has a powerful voice; and it is one that will permeate the silence that has plagued this subject for too long.