Azara Blog: Obese women allegedly much more likely to die in pregnancy

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Date published: 2007/12/04

The BBC says:

Obesity is the fastest growing cause of women dying in pregnancy or childbirth in the UK, a report shows.

More than half the 295 women who died during or after pregnancy between 2003 and 2005 were overweight or obese.

Experts say the number of deaths - from a total of two million pregnancies - is low but the trend is very worrying.

The Confidential Enquiries into Maternal Deaths (CEMACH) report calls for more support and advice for obese women before and during pregnancy.

Gwyneth Lewis, CEMACH director and the government's maternity tsar, said the figures showed that childbirth was very safe in the UK.

But she said the growing evidence of a link to obesity was a cause for concern.

The figures suggest that a modest amount of extra weight in pregnancy carries little extra risk, but obesity poses a significant problem.

Fifteen per cent of the mothers who died were morbid or super-morbidly obese.

Dr Lewis said: "Obese pregnant women are probably at four or five times greater risk of suffering maternal death than a woman of normal weight - and the same for their babies dying."

She is concerned many women are not aware of the risk associated with obesity.

Overall, the UK has one of the lowest rates of maternal death in the world.

However, the death rate in the UK has begun to rise. In 2003-05 it stood at almost 13.95 per 100,000 births, up from 13.07 in 2000-02, and just 9.83 in 1985-87.

More demonisation of obese people by the chattering classes. The article is fairly typical of BBC health stories in that it leaves out important facts and confuses correlation and causation (although that is not likely to be a serious complaint here).

So, the BBC tells us that "more than half the 295 women who died during or after pregnancy between 2003 and 2005 were overweight or obese". But they fail to tell us what percentage of prenant women are obese. Given that the chattering classes always claim we are now in an obesity "epidemic", it wouldn't be surprising if "more than half" of pregnant women were classified as obese, in which case the death statistics would not be anything unusual. Unfortunately the BBC leaves out this fact because they just want to scare-monger, not inform.

Then we are told that "obese pregnant women are probably at four or five times greater risk of suffering maternal death than a woman of normal weight", but that could easily be dominated by the tail of "morbid or super-morbidly obese" women. Given that the article also claims that "a modest amount of extra weight in pregnancy carries little extra risk", the tail indeed seems to be where the real problem lies.

The article at least gives the absolute death rate, which of course is miniscule. So should acres of newsprint be devoted to this obesity issue? Given the around 1 in 7600 maternal death rate, and assuming a 4 times higher death rate for obese women, this gives at worse a 1 in 1900 maternal death rate for obese women (again, skewed towards the tail). (At worse, because that would be assuming there are many more non-obese than obese women, and that is likely to be false.) So that would be 0.05% of obese women, i.e. at least 99.95% of obese women do not die in pregnancy. The world is seemingly not at an end. But that does not make a good BBC headline.

The article later commits another classic journalistic sin of looking at one example (some very obese woman), which allegedly "proves" what the story was saying all along (which of course is nonsense, since one example rarely proves anything).

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