Gains made in health of Indigenous mothers and babies, but more improvements needed

Over the period 2001-2004, the perinatal death rate of babies born to Indigenous mothers declined significantly (from 16 to 11 per 1,000 births). Despite this improvement, babies born to Indigenous mothers still had twice the neonatal death rate of other babies according to a new report released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

The report, Indigenous mothers and their babies, Australia 2001-2004, shows that over the 2001-2004 period 35,264 women who identified as being of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin gave birth to 35,682 babies - 3.6% of all babies born to all women in Australia during this period.

Indigenous mothers were less likely to be first-time mothers (30%) compared with non-Indigenous mothers (42%) and less likely than in previous years to be teenage mothers.

'There was a significant drop (from 10% to 8%) in the number of Indigenous teenage mothers over the period,' said Dr Elizabeth Sullivan of the Institute's National Perinatal Statistics Unit.

While the report indicated that the health of Indigenous mothers and babies is generally on the increase, it also noted that Indigenous mothers were three times as likely to have smoked during pregnancy in comparison to non-Indigenous mothers.

A woman who smokes while pregnant is at increased risk of experiencing a wide range of problems including low birth-weight and premature labour.

'Women who smoke are up to three times as likely to give birth to a low birth-weight baby compared to non-smokers, and low birth-weight babies are more vulnerable to short and long term health problems' said Dr Sullivan.

Babies born to Indigenous mothers were twice as likely to be of low birth-weight - 13% compared with 6% of live births among non-Indigenous mothers.

The report showed that the proportion of low birth-weight babies born to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous mothers increased significantly, but the increase was greater among babies born to Indigenous mothers.

Babies born to Indigenous mothers were almost twice as likely to be born preterm - 4% compared with 8% for non-indigenous mothers.

Indigenous mothers also had a higher proportion of spontaneous onset of labour, and were less likely to have a caesarean section.

This is the third report on the health of Indigenous mothers and their babies.

24 October 2007

Further information: Dr Elizabeth Sullivan, AIHW, tel. 02 9382 1014, mob. 0439 994 820.

For media copies of the report: Publications Officer, AIHW, tel. 61 2 6244 1032.