Deaths in children under five happen one and a half times more often in England than in Sweden. The authors of a new report say that's partly because the UK's more unequal wealth distribution leads to poorer maternal health for pregnant women.
New research has found more than 6,000 fewer children under the age of five would have died between 2003 and 2012 if England's mortality rate was the same as Sweden's.
The study, published in The Lancet, compared over 3.9 million English births and 1 million Swedish births. Researchers found children in England typically weigh less at birth, are born earlier, and have more birth defects compared to Sweden.
“While child deaths are still rare, the UK has one of the highest child mortality rates in western Europe,” said the lead author of the report Dr. Ania Zylbersztejn.
But another factor which explains the striking difference between the two nations' rates is down to wealth inequality. While both countries have similar levels of economic development and universal healthcare, the UK's more unequal wealth distribution leads to poorer maternal health during pregnancy which causes more babies to be born prematurely and with a low birth weight, or defect.
Researchers also say that if the child mortality rate had been the same in England as in Sweden during the 10-year period studied, more than 600 fewer child deaths per year would have occurred in England.
Between the ages of two days to four years old, the child mortality rate for England was one and a half times higher than for Sweden (29 deaths per 10,000 children in England, compared to 19 deaths per 100,000 children in Sweden).
Those differences in mortality were mainly found among children aged under the age of one.
Good mental health, including avoiding stress and maintaining a good diet, are also associated with a healthy foetal growth.
One of the co-authors of the paper Pia Hardelid told Euronews that there is evidence that shows wealth is a big factor when it comes to foetal development and child mortality. She said: “It’s much easier to have a child when you’re wealthy, you don’t have to worry about paying for housing or where your next meal is coming from.”
The UK has one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in all western countries. Between 2003-2005 the most deprived 20% of the UK's population had a seven-fold lower income than the least deprived 20%, while the gap in Sweden was only four-times.
Hardelid said that “if we want to do something about it in England, we have to improve pregnancy care,” adding that the differences in child mortality “start before birth.”