International comparisons of fetal and neonatal mortality rates in high-income countries: should exclusion thresholds be based on birth weight or gestational age?

PLoS One. 2013 May 20;8(5):e64869. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0064869. Print 2013.


Background: Fetal and neonatal mortality rates are essential indicators of population health, but variations in recording of births and deaths at the limits of viability compromises international comparisons. The World Health Organization recommends comparing rates after exclusion of births with a birth weight less than 1000 grams, but many analyses of perinatal outcomes are based on gestational age. We compared the effects of using a 1000-gram birth weight or a 28-week gestational age threshold on reported rates of fetal and neonatal mortality in Europe.

Methods: Aggregated data from 2004 on births and deaths tabulated by birth weight and gestational age from 29 European countries/regions participating in the Euro-Peristat project were used to compute fetal and neonatal mortality rates using cut-offs of 1000-grams and 28-weeks (2.8 million total births). We measured differences in rates between and within countries using the Wilcoxon signed rank test and 95% confidence intervals, respectively.

Principal findings: For fetal mortality, rates based on gestational age were significantly higher than those based on birth weight (p<0.001), although these differences varied between countries. The use of a 1000-gram threshold included 8823 fetal deaths compared with 9535 using a 28-week threshold (difference of 712). In contrast, the choice of a cut-off made little difference for comparisons of neonatal deaths (difference of 16). Neonatal mortality rates differed minimally, by under 0.1 per 1000 in most countries (p = 0.370). Country rankings were comparable with both thresholds.

Conclusions: Neonatal mortality rates were not affected by the choice of a threshold. However, the use of a 1000-gram threshold underestimated the health burden of fetal deaths. This may in part reflect the exclusion of growth restricted fetuses. In high-income countries with a good measure of gestational age, using a 28-week threshold may provide additional valuable information about fetal deaths occurring in the third trimester.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Birth Weight*
  • Europe / epidemiology
  • European Union / statistics & numerical data
  • Fetal Death / epidemiology*
  • Fetal Mortality
  • Gestational Age*
  • Humans
  • Infant Mortality
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Live Birth / epidemiology
  • Perinatal Mortality
  • Reference Standards
  • Survival Rate
  • World Health Organization