JOHN RUDDY looks at child mortality rates in Scotland in the wake of recent comments from Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon 

When your wife is expecting your first child, you tend to take a greater than normal interest in things such as infant mortality. So when the Deputy First Minister stands up and claims that children are more likely to die in a part of Scotland – and blames the Labour council for it, I decided to look into it.

Although Glasgow Labour had issued a press release, my first stop, of course was the Scottish Government’s own website.  There I found Ms Sturgeon had released a statement only a few weeks ago on the same subject. It also included a helpful link to the latest Government statistics, contained within the Scottish Perinatal and Infant Mortality and Morbidity Report 2010. Here I thought, I would be able to see how safe our baby will be.

Therefore it was strange to see that the Health Minister was saying something completely different. “…the rates of stillbirths, neonatal deaths, perinatal deaths and infant deaths were the lowest ever recorded in Scotland” she was quoted as saying. “The rate of post-natal deaths equalled the lowest ever recorded” she continued. What no mention of the dangers of voting Labour?

So what is the Government doing about these unnecessary deaths? Well, Nicola said she was taking action “The report has a number of important recommendations that we expect NHS Boards, with assistance from Healthcare Improvement Scotland, to take cognisance of – and take appropriate action.” That’s great – but aren’t NHS boards the responsibility of the Scottish Government, and not local authorities? Perhaps the stats will show how dangerous it is to give birth in Glasgow.

While one of the first things the statisticians talk about is the variations between health boards, it is not to point them out, but rather to state that they are more likely to be related to random variation. Random variation? Not voting Labour then? Ahh, but it goes onto to say that one NHS board are is being investigated for reasons why there has been an increased stillbirth rate! This surely must be what she was talking about! The identity of this board should become clear with some more digging.

One thing, however is very clear – the fact that the rates of infant mortality, from all causes, has dropped significantly over the last 30 years. Stillbirths dropped most rapidly in the last 70s and early 80s, while neonatal and post-neonatal deaths have continued to drop, albeit more gradually since then. In fact it is clear that since the mid-70s, there has been such a reduction that such deaths are now very rare – overall in Scotland the rate is 8.6 per 1000 live births compared to over 31 in 1974.

The report makes clear that factors such as the mothers BMI, smoking status and social deprivation are drivers for infant mortality, the link is not direct. In comparing NHS boards, the report makes clear that since there are a statistically small number of stillbirths and neonatal deaths, annual fluctuations are heavily influenced by chance, so they have aggregated several years, and used a funnel plot showing standard deviation from the mean. This allows for small populations to be compared, and allow ready recognition of outliers. At last we can see the evidence that voting Labour will kill your baby!

Except, it doesn’t. That one health board that’s being investigated? As the report states quite clearly, the graph “shows NHS Fife to be the only board with a rate more than 3 standard deviations above the mean for stillbirths.”

While I am pleased that Tayside seems to almost exactly average, I wonder what these figures say about the SNP led administration in Fife? Perhaps it is not fit for purpose? Or perhaps this is playing politics with peoples deepest fears and emotions. Isnt this really blaming someone for things they don’t have control over (after all these are health boards we are comparing, not local authorities). Maybe this is showing that Holyrood can do scaremongering much better than anyone else.

The question I would like to ask Ms Sturgeon is how many parents have you worried with your baseless lies, told simply to win an election? How many people now fear for the health of their unborn children, and are wrongly blaming their local councillors when they come knocking on the door. Why haven’t you taken responsibility for tackling this issue, as your own report of 31st January said. And how can you sleep at night after having done all that?

Originally from Devon, John Ruddy now lives in Angus. He was an agent for Scottish Labour at the Holyrood election and is a Unison shop steward. Follow John on Twitter at @jruddy99