The mortality rate for infants in Britain rose for the first time in 100 years in 2015 and again in 2016. Deaths rose from 3.6 deaths per 1,000 in 2014 to 3.7 per 1,000 in 2015, then 3.8 per 1,000 deaths in 2016. Previous years had shown a steady decline in infant mortality rates across the UK.
The new report by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health predicts that if the rate of increase stays the same, the UK's infant mortality will be 140% higher than 15 other European countries within the next 12 years, due to a faster fall of mortality rates elsewhere in Europe.
The lead author of the report, Russell Viner, said this possible outcome is "pretty disastrous." He added that "this is a warning sign that things need to shift."
Viner said that the cause of the rise in mortality seen over the past two years is unknown and that it's not clear whether this is a blip or a sign of a worrying trend.
However, he added, "much of this is related to deprivation, poverty and inequality, which is higher [in the UK] than in the other European countries."
The report modeled historical data on mortality rates against Britain's future child health outcomes alongside 15 other countries in the European Union as well as Norway, Australia and Canada.
The analysis identified the potential for rates in the UK to be 140% higher for infant mortality by 2030. If the mortality rates in the UK starts to decrease again, at the rate seen between 2001 to 2014, it can expect a 80% higher mortality rate than other European countries by 2030.
In both predictions, Britain fares worse than its European counterparts due to risk factors for infant mortality being higher, according to the report.
"The proportion of young mothers, the proportion of those who smoke during pregnancy, the proportion who don't breastfeed are worse than in other EU countries," Viner said.
Smoking during pregnancy can significantly increase risks of stillbirth
as well as feeding and breathing problems. The UK
has one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding, especially among young mothers, despite the health benefits such as reduced risks of gastrointestinal, respiratory and ear infections.
The UK's infant mortality rate fell behind the group of European countries in the early 1990s, and it has since been declining at a slower pace than the other 15 countries, according to the report. Rates in the US are even higher.
In 2016, the United States' infant mortality rate was 5.9
deaths per 1,000 births. For the same year, England and Wales reported an infant mortality rate of 3.8
deaths per 1,000 births.
The report says that the UK has poorer health outcomes among 0 to 19-year-olds, compared with the 15 other EU countries. With a slower rate of improvement, this means the UK is likely to fall even farther behind its counterparts in the future across many health issues, such as obesity, mortality and mental health.
Jonathan Grigg, professor of pediatric respiratory and environmental medicine at Queen Mary University of London and consultant pediatrician, described the report's findings as a "wake-up call."
"We need to invest more into the health care of children and we need to put children at the center of the service," he said.
Emergency room visits by children and young people (0-19 years) are also predicted to rise by 50% in England by 2030, according to the report, along with mental health issues, with a 63% predicted increase of mental health problems in England expected by 2030. In that same period, almost a quarter -- 23% -- of England's 11-year old boys will be obese.
"Child poverty is predicted to increase over the next decade, which, if true, may make our predictions under-estimates," Viner wrote in an email. "Children living in poverty are more likely to be obese, have mental health issues and die early."
The report makes several recommendations to combat the worrying predictions, including funding and planning strategies for Britain's national heath care system, the National Health Service. Investments in health visits at schools, training for maternal professionals, weight management services for children and young people and other policies were mentioned in the report.
"It is not inevitable. We know that countries can turn around their infant mortality rate," Viner said. The Netherlands, for example, reduced its infant mortality rate by around 20% over the last decade thanks to national and local actions, he said.
"We need a renewed focus on maternity and early child development," Viner said, "above all, a broad health strategy with a specific focus on children."