THE New England region has one of the highest rates of infant deaths and smoking rates during pregnancy, one of the nation’s peak health reporting bodies has found.
The National Health Performance Authority report (2009-2012) is the first in Australia to break down into local areas, in this case Medicare Local regions, rates of infant and child mortality, smoking during pregnancy, low-birthweight babies and antenatal visits in the first trimester.
New England Medicare Local’s Graeme Kershaw acknowledged more needed to be done to address the issues and said they would be looking closely at the data to understand the reasons behind the poor figures.
In New England, the number of deaths among infants aged less than 12 months per 1000 live births was 5.3, the highest for its peer group, which included 15 other regions around the nation.
In order to compare the Medicare Local regions more fairly, the report grouped them into seven peer groups based on remoteness and socioeconomic status.
For infant mortality, there were only six regions that recorded higher rates, including Greater Metro South Brisbane (5.5), Central Queensland (6.1), Far North Queensland (7.0) and the highest, the Northern Territory with 7.6.
When it came to the number of deaths among children aged less than five years per 1000 live births, the number for New England grew to 6.1, the third highest rate in its peer group.
Eight other regions had worse rates, including New England’s peers Wide Bay in Queensland (6.2) and Country South Australia (6.5).
Far North Queensland (8.2) and the Northern Territory (9.2) again recorded the highest rates.
They compare with the lowest rate of 2.6 in Bayside, Victoria, and Goulburn Valley, which had the lowest number in New England’s peer group with 3.5.
Almost 23 per cent of women in New England smoked during their pregnancy, compared with a peer group high of 26.5 per cent in Wide Bay and 33 per cent, the highest in Australia, in Far West NSW.
The lowest rate was 1.8 per cent in Sydney North Shore and Beaches Medicare Local.
The rates skyrocketed for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, rising to just over 55 per cent in New England and the highest, 66.4 per cent in Goulburn Valley.
Mr Kershaw said smoking rates during pregnancy were higher in regional areas because there was a higher proportion of people in lower socioeconomic circumstances, but just why health messages were not getting through to these groups was unclear.
High smoking rates during pregnancy were also likely to have impacted on the low birthweight rates (New England again had one of the highest in the nation with 5.6 per cent of live births) and child mortality figures.
A direct correlation had been drawn between smoking and low birthweights, Mr Kershaw said, while it was also considered a factor in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in older children.