Disadvantage and adversity behind high sudden infant death rate - University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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Disadvantage and adversity behind high sudden infant death rate

17 Feb 2021

Queensland’s first large-scale study of all sudden infant deaths to date has identified key factors contributing to the state’s persistently high annual death rate of babies.

PhD student Rebecca Shipstone conducted an extensive investigation into Queensland’s annual rate of Sudden and Unexpected Deaths in Infants (SUDI), which has not reduced since 2002 and remains higher than most other Australian states and territories.

Her recently completed doctorate was supervised by USC Professor Jeanine Young AM and Associate Professor John Thompson of the University of Auckland, both renowned SUDI researchers. Associate Professor Lauren Kearney, a USC maternal and child health researcher, was part of the investigating team.

Ms Shipstone said the study found large disparities in the infant death rate among socially disadvantaged and vulnerable families, and among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations, compared to other Queensland families.

“Our research identified that Indigenous infants died suddenly at a rate over 3.5 times that of non-Indigenous infants, a much higher rate than that indicated in official national ‘Closing the Gap’ statistics,” she said.

“We also found that vulnerable families experiencing multiple adversity were at greater risk of sudden infant death than other families.”

The study analysed historic and current data from multiple sources including the Queensland Family and Child Commission, Queensland Health and the Coroners Court of Queensland.

“These results are concerning because infant mortality rates and causes of mortality are important measures of the effectiveness, availability and accessibility of health services for mothers and babies,” Ms Shipstone said.

“It was also concerning to note the lack of support and the trauma experienced by families during infant death investigations.” 

Professor Young said the quality of the PhD research was evident in its five published papers, even before Ms Shipstone’s upcoming graduation. The latest was in Frontiers in Public Health.

The researchers recommended that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and socially vulnerable families should be priorities for health promotion to address sudden infant deaths.

Professor Young said the promotion and implementation of culturally safe care planned around the whole family was likely to be most effective at reducing deaths among the priority groups.

“We hope this research helps improve the delivery of infant, child and family health promotion and preventative care services across the state,” she said.

Queensland State Coroner Terry Ryan said, "This research makes a very important contribution to the evidence base for future public health responses in Queensland".

Professor Jeanine Young, left, and PhD student Rebecca Shipstone

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