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Stillbirths in America: How many babies die each year?

More than a million stillbirths a year can be prevented, says study. iStockphoto

(CBS) LONDON - "Not every pregnancy ends happily."

Those are the words of Samantha Baker, a British accountant near London who gave birth to a stillborn daughter she called Samantha. Baker said Scarlett's umbilical cord twisted around her neck and suffocated her when she went into labor.

"I can't think of a worse tragedy to happen to expecting parents," she said and now works for a charity that supports families affected by stillbirths.

According to a new study published in "The Lancet," Samantha's stillbirth (the death of a baby at 22 weeks gestation or more) is one of more than 2 million each year, and researchers say half of them could be prevented with better medical care.

The global numbers are controversial since data is scarce in the developing world, where the vast majority of stillbirths occur. But there were surprises in places closer to home.

In the U.S., there were six stillbirths per 1,000 births, one of the highest rates among high income countries. The rate is nearly double for blacks. But some European countries fared worse. Britain, where Samantha lives, had 3.5 stillbirths for 1,000 and France and Austria did worse still.

Finland and Singapore had the lowest stillbirth rates worldwide -- two per 1,000 births. Nigeria and Pakistan were at the bottom of the list, with 42 and 47 stillbirths, respectively, per 1,000 births.

Whether the numbers hold up, experts agree stillbirths happen far too often.

"It's a scandal there are so many stillbirths that can be prevented," said Joy Lawn, director of global evidence and policy at Save the Children in South Africa, who led the Lancet series. She said the politics of public health has meant the stillbirths problem has been sidelined by maternal and child health programs, even though there are more stillbirths than children killed by AIDS and malaria combined.

Pregnancy is dangerous in the developing world.  The study authors estimate that 1.6 mothers and newborn babies could be saved and 1.1 million stillbirths could be prevented globally for a paltry cost of $2.32 per person.

In developing countries, most stillbirths are caused by delivery complications, maternal infections in pregnancy, fetal growth problems and congenital abnormalities. In developed countries, the reasons are often unclear why stillbirths occur, and surveillance and autopsy data are patchy.

As for the Bakers, leaving the hospital after their daughter arrived dead was the hardest part. They spent several hours with baby Scarlett after she was born in December 2009.

"Nobody ever wants to talk about (stillborns) because it's so sad," she said.

But three weeks ago, her tragedy had a happier ending. Baker gave birth to a son, Harry. She and her husband also have an older daughter, Sydney.

The full stillbirth report can be found at "The Lancet."

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