Understanding stillbirth



When a couple learns that “they are pregnant,” it is often one of the most joyous moments in their lives. However, despite the modern prenatal care available to women in the United States, pregnancy loss remains a real concern. Miscarriage is estimated to occur in 15%-20% of pregnancies; recurrent pregnancy loss in about 1%-2% of pregnancies; and stillbirth in as many as 1% of pregnancies. The causes of pregnancy loss can range from those we can diagnose, such as genetic factors, anatomic complications, and thrombophilia, to those that elude us completely.

In December 2015, investigators from Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm published a study indicating that women who gained weight between their first and second pregnancies, but who were a healthy weight prior to their first pregnancy, had an increased risk of experiencing a stillbirth (30%-50%), or having an infant who died within the first year (27%-60%) ( Lancet 2015. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(15)00990-3 ). We have devoted a number of Master Class columns to the link between obesity and pregnancy complications, and this study further reinforces the influence of a healthy weight on pregnancy outcomes.

Dr. E. Albert Reece

Dr. E. Albert Reece

In addition to lifestyle modifications, evidence has suggested that low-molecular-weight heparin, aspirin, or vitamin supplements, in combination with appropriate surveillance and management, may reduce risk of pregnancy loss. However, more work is needed to fully understand why fetal death occurs if we are to better equip ourselves, and our patients, with all the information necessary to prevent loss from happening.

For this reason, we have invited Dr. Uma M. Reddy of the Pregnancy and Perinatology Branch of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health, to address one of the most devastating types of pregnancy losses: stillbirth. As a program scientist for large research studies, such as the Stillbirth Collaborative Research Network, Dr. Reddy’s unique perspective will add greatly to our understanding of pregnancy loss.

Dr. Reece, who specializes in maternal-fetal medicine, is vice president for medical affairs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, as well as the John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers Distinguished Professor and dean of the school of medicine. Dr. Reece reported having no relevant financial disclosures. He is the medical editor of this column.

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