Of all the things that pregnant women worry about — and the list is uncomprehendingly long — stillbirth is the darkest of all. Some don’t even allow their mind to go there, though one out of 160 pregnancies end this way.
Many times doctors seem at a loss to explain why, which can compound the devastating pain of losing a child at or after the 20th week of pregnancy. Now an Australian study has an answer as to why and how to prevent stillbirths in the future.
Australia’s Hunter Medical Research Institute researchers report a major breakthrough in understanding the mystery.
Professor Roger Smith of the institute said researchers found that many stillbirths are triggered by an aging placenta, he told the Australia Broadcasting Corporation.
“As you look around at everybody you know, you’ll notice that different people age at different rates. And it’s almost certainly the same with the placenta. Some placentas age more rapidly than others.”
Placentas can begin to age weeks before the woman’s due date, Smith said. This starves the fetus of oxygen and nutrients needed to survive. A deteriorating placenta emits an enzyme called aldehyde oxidase. Developing a test that measures how much of this enzyme a woman’s placenta is excreting can be a critical step in preventing stillbirths, Smith said.
The good news is that doctors can monitor pregnant women more closely for signs of placenta deterioration in the weeks before she goes into labor.
Saving future babies
If the mother is far enough along in her pregnancy, the doctor can perform a cesarean section and “get the baby out before the baby dies,” Smith said.
If the baby is too early to deliver, Professor Smith said future options may still save the baby.
“If a baby is too early in pregnancy to be delivered, we may be able to give drugs that inhibit that enzyme to slow the ageing of the placenta, and allow the baby to stay in the uterus until it is likely to survive when it’s born”