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Up to 1,000 babies are dying needlessly every year because overworked midwives and doctors are not trained to spot danger signals, according to an expert on stillbirths.

His warning came as confidential figures were disclosed which show that the health service faces nearly £4.5 billion in compensation claims over alleged blunders by doctors and midwives.

A young boy is weighed after being born, poor training ’causes 1,000 stillbirths a year’

Prof Sabaratnam Arulkumaran said there was a direct connection between staffing levels and the risk for patients Professor Jason Gardosi, director of the Perinatal Institute, is to present the results of a 10-year study at a conference in Birmingham.

It will show a link between stillbirths and foetal growth restriction, in which babies in the womb fail to reach their expected size.

Around 40 per cent of stillbirths are growth-restricted, and it is estimated as many as 1,000 stillbirths a year could be avoided if medics spotted that the babies were smaller than normal and should, therefore, be delivered early.

“Our research has shown the largest percentage of stillbirths were associated with the baby not having grown well within the womb,” said Prof Gardosi.

“And it found that the majority of these stillbirths were potentially avoidable. “There is also an issue about resources, in terms of midwifery caseload and in terms of providing ultrasound to check for foetal growth for high-risk pregnancies.”

His comments were echoed yesterday by Prof Sabaratnam Arulkumaran, the incoming president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, who warned that the numbers of consultants and midwives at up to half of hospitals “aren’t adequate”, putting pregnant women and babies in danger. “There’s a direct connection between staffing levels and the risk for patients,” he said.

In a speech next month he will cite data showing that most babies die during the night when hospitals have fewer consultants on duty.

Only a handful of European countries suffer more stillbirths than Britain. Almost 4,000 babies deaths occurred last year — 10 a day in England and Wales — and the levels have stayed roughly the same for a decade.

There are demands that hospitals which deliver the most babies are given better levels of cover, particularly at night. The Royal College of Midwives claims that 5,000 extra midwives will be needed in the next five years as birth rates rise.

Meanwhile, confidential figures from the NHS Litigation Authority, which handles claims for medical negligence, show that the health service is being sued for huge amounts of compensation, amounting to £4.49billion, from families of brain-damaged babies.

Three quarters of the figure relates to incidents in which the child has cerebral palsy, often caused by being starved of oxygen at birth.

The Department of Health said the size of the figures was explained by the high cost of providing lifetime care to disabled children.

It also said research into the cause of stillbirths was of great importance and that £3.7million is spent a year on investigating premature births.

Gwyneth Lewis, the Government’s chief adviser on maternity care, insisted: “Due to the skill and expertise of our midwives and doctors, England is one of the safest places to have a baby.”

Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, vowed yesterday to fight the next general election on health, promising better cancer treatment and a blitz on hospital superbugs. However, the Conservatives claimed that maternity services were not improving.

Andrew Lansley, the shadow health secretary, said: “We warned the Government that over the past five years we’ve seen a 12 percent increase in the number of live births but only a 4.5 per cent increase in the number of midwives.

“Mothers should be able to expect not only choice in child birth but also not to be exposed to unnecessary risk.”

[Martin Beckford, 24/09/2007, ]