Campaign seeks reasons for 55% fall in cot deaths: Foundation calls for follow-up research on advice to mothers

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COT DEATH campaigners called yesterday for intensive research to explain the dramatic drop in infant deaths announced by Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health.

For the third quarter in succession deaths have dropped by more than 50 per cent since new advice was given to mothers. The latest figures for the first nine months of 1992 were 326 deaths, compared with 723 in the same period in 1991, a fall of 55 per cent. The decrease follows a campaign launched in the winter of 1991 by the TV presenter Anne Diamond, whose baby suffered a cot death.

Mrs Bottomley paid tribute to the campaign and to the doctors and nurses 'who have made sure that the advice got through to expectant mothers'. She said that if there were avoidable factors the department had a duty to discover what they were and take the necessary action.

The 'Back to Sleep' campaign concentrated on a four-part plan to reduce risk but it is not known how many mothers took the advice or which aspects they followed. A key part of the advice was to lay babies on their backs to sleep - never on their fronts. Mothers were advised not to let their babies get too hot at night; not to smoke over them and not to delay getting the doctor if they were concerned about their baby's health.

Joyce Epstein, director general of the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths, said that detailed research was needed to find what mothers were doing. 'There is no question that the . . . Anne Diamond campaign enabled us to get the message across very urgently. But 10 babies a week are still dying. We are disappointed that the Government has not funded research and we still hope this will be forthcoming,' she said.

Ms Epstein said that they needed to know to what extent mothers had taken on the advice about sleeping positions and heat in the nursery, whether there were class differences, and whether the statistics revealed any new information about the age of babies who died.

The Chief Medical Officer, Dr Kenneth Calman, has set up an expert working group which is due to report in the next few weeks. It is expected to take on many of the messages of the earlier campaign, including warning mothers about smoking before or after birth. There will also be advice on the dangers of overwrapping and keeping babies too warm. Mothers will be told to breast-feed when possible and seek medical help if the child becomes unwell.

Cot deaths are still the main cause of infant deaths. Until 1988, there were about 2 per 100,000 live births; then they fell by 12 to 15 per cent a year until the dramatic drop last year.