This Swedish baby is 52 percent more likely to make it to four years old than one born in England. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT
Researchers from University College London and Sweden's Karolinska Institute found that while 19 out of 10,000 children born in Sweden between 2003 and 2012 died, in England the figure was 29 out of 10,000. They investigated children between the ages of two days old and four years old.
Around 77 percent of the difference came down to low birth weight, premature birth and congenital defects, such as heart problems, which were far more common in the UK.
According to Anders Hjern, a professor at Karolinska who helped carry out the study, this was largely because English mothers were more likely to be poor.
“Some people say we should blame Margaret Thatcher for this, because she took away much of the welfare state that there was, so poor families in the UK have a much tougher situation than Sweden,” Hjern told The Local.
In 2003-2005, the most deprived 20 percent of the UK's population had a seven-fold lower income than the least deprived 20 percent, while the gap in Sweden was only four times lower.
“The main message from our study is actually that it’s not the NHS,” Hjern said. “This study shows that the main explanations for the differences in child mortality rates between England and Sweden are systemic.”
In a statement he said: “The key factors here are likely to include Sweden's broader welfare programmes that have provided families with an economic safety net for over 50 years, the free and accessible educational system, including early child care, and public health policies for many lifestyle issues such as obesity, smoking and alcohol use.”
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“Being poor brings chronic stress,” Hjern told Sweden's TT newswire. “There's a lot of interesting research on how that sort of stress affects a pregnant woman.”
“In addition, older children in Sweden go to kindergarten,” he added. “That's not nearly as common in England. It's much more common for the children of poor people to stay home with their unemployed mothers instead.”
The lead author Dr Ania Zylbersztejn, from UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, said that the best route to reducing infant mortality would be fight social disadvantage more broadly, and also to work to improve the health of mothers before and during pregnancy.
“Families need to be better supported before and during pregnancy to improve maternal health, and in turn to give all children a healthy start in life,” she said.