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Fetal death, or stillbirth, is an extremely sensitive subject and can be devastating for couples who experience it. In America, almost 26,000 women experience this every year. In about every 200 pregnancies, one fetal death will occur.
The medical definition of stillbirth is a baby that is born after 24 weeks with no sign of life. If the baby is born with no sign of life before the 24-week period, then it is termed a miscarriage. The fetus will die in the mother before it is delivered.
The number of fetal deaths that occur is extremely high. In around 50% of cases, the reason for death is unknown. There are some indications as to the possible causes, such as infection, accidents with the umbilical cord and genetic factors. Known causes include mothers with a history of diabetes and problems with blood pressure.
Other known causes include problems with the placenta and eclampsia, which causes seizures during pregnancy. There may also be severe irregularities or abnormalities in the baby that contribute to the stillbirth. There have been cases of the membrane that encloses the baby tearing or prematurely rupturing.
There are a few infections that are also known to cause fetal death. Although rare, toxoplasmosis has been recorded as a cause. Mothers who have been infected with German measles or listeriosis have also experienced fetal deaths. Fetal death may also occur when the blood groups of the mother and the baby do not match. This is called Rhesus factor disease, and women who have this condition must be medically treated to prevent stillbirths.
Another known cause is Anti-phospholipid Syndrome, which causes the baby to become starved of essential oxygen and nutrients in the womb. This happens when the placenta fails to provide nutrients due to blood clotting. Treatment for this condition includes medications that thin the blood.
Problems with the placenta are a major factor in fetal death. The placenta may become detached at an early stage in the pregnancy, causing a lack of blood flow to the fetus. Intra-uterine growth retardation (IUGR) is the medical term for the baby failing to achieve full growth in the womb. This condition accounts for at least 5% of all stillbirths.
Stillbirths are a condition that many women, understandably, do not wish to talk about. Because of this, the exact figures are unknown. Another reason that fetal death figures vary is that many hospitals are not required to issue death certificates for these deaths.
In 2004, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched a five-year, nationwide study on fetal deaths. The NIH is spending three million US dollars (USD) on the study. It is hoped that the research from this study will shed new light on the causes of this worldwide problem.