Malta has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancies in the EU, according to a new report comparing data on maternal and infant health across the continent for the first time.
The European Perinatal Health Report (EPHR) says that Malta had a teenage delivery rate of 5.8 per cent of all women who gave birth in 2004, which is the year for which data were collected.
This places it in seventh place alongside Poland among 25 EU states and Norway. The lowest rate was registered in Denmark (1.3 per cent) and the highest in Latvia (9.3 per cent).
For the purposes of the report, a low proportion of births to teenage mothers was defined as below three per cent and those in the intermediate position between three and five per cent. Malta falls in the last category with a relatively high rate.
At the other end of the scale, a total of 11.7 per cent of women were registered as delivering at 35 years or older in Malta when compared to 7.5 per cent in Slovakia and 24.3 per cent in Ireland. The figure for Malta is among the lowest in Europe.
The Euro-Peristat (perinatal statistics) report notes that both early and late childbearing are associated with higher-than-average rates of preterm birth, growth restriction and perinatal (before and after birth) mortality.
"Increased risks for younger mothers have been associated with social and healthcare factors, including lack of antenatal care, unwanted or hidden pregnancies, poor nutrition and lower social status. Older mothers have a higher prevalence of pregnancy complications, including some congenital anomalies, hypertension and diabetes."
Smoking during pregnancy has also been associated with birth problems and, according to the report, 7.2 per cent of women in Malta reported smoking during pregnancy.
"This is a comparatively low rate and may be an underestimate as many women are reluctant to report smoking habits at their antenatal visits when this information is collected," the report notes. The highest rate reported was 22 per cent for Wales and the lowest 4.8 per cent for Lithuania.
When comparing instrumental with non-instrumental births, the rate of vaginal non-instrumental births in Malta was 67.8 per cent of total births. This rate varied in the different countries, ranging from 82.8 per cent in Slovenia to 53.8 per cent in Portugal.
Meanwhile, 3.8 per cent of total births were instrumental vaginal deliveries including forceps, ventouse and breech extractions while the rest, 28.3 per cent, were births by Caesarean section.
The rate of newborns breastfed in the first 48 hours was reported as 68.4 per cent for Malta. Only four centres reported lower rates: Ireland (45.6 per cent), France (62.3 per cent), Northern Ireland (63 per cent) and Wales (67 per cent). The highest rate was reported in Sweden at 97.9 per cent.
Malta had the smallest annual number of births reported among all participating countries.
The report notes that a small number of events, especially rare ones, makes comparisons with other countries difficult. Another difficulty when making country comparisons is the fact that in Malta induced abortion for foetal anomalies is illegal and thus, infants with potentially fatal conditions will reach delivery and pass away soon after birth.
The neonatal mortality (number of deaths up to 28 completed days of birth) was 4.4 per 1,000 live births for Malta. The highest was 5.7 for Latvia and the lowest 1.6 for Cyprus).
Infant mortality (number of deaths following live birth and until one year of age) for Malta was reported at 5.9 per 1,000 live births. The highest was 9.4 for Latvia and the lowest three for Sweden and Norway.
Maternal deaths are rare events in all EU countries and Malta did not register any in 2003 or 2004.
The full report can be viewed on www.europeristat.com.