New concerns as figures reveal only eight mums gave birth at Caithness CMU in 2022
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A Caithness health campaigner has said he fears for the future of Wick's midwifery facility after a further decline in the number of babies born in the county.
Just eight mothers gave birth in the community midwifery unit (CMU) at Caithness General Hospital during 2022 – about four per cent of the total for Caithness mums. The number of Caithness women giving birth at Raigmore in Inverness was 202.
The figures were obtained by Caithness Health Action Team (CHAT) through a Freedom of Information request to NHS Highland.
CHAT chairman Ron Gunn reiterated the group's call for the county to adopt the so-called Orkney model – a midwife-led unit backed up by consultants. Around 80 per cent of Orkney mothers give birth in their local area.
“We have a great unit there, and the staff are excellent, but they just haven't got the numbers," Mr Gunn said. "I'd be worried for the future of the CMU if we can't get more safe births there.
“It just shows things are not improving. We are really concerned about the numbers that are going down the road with all the hazards, and the figures are there to be seen.
“If we had the Orkney model we'd be away up about 80 per cent.”
The overall Caithness birth rate for 2022 is put at between 210 and 220, including up to five babies born in Wick A&E and up to five elsewhere.
Maternal transfers to Raigmore by road ambulance numbered 28 and a small number went by air.
Mr Gunn said CHAT had been told recently by Maree Todd, the SNP MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross and Scotland's minister for public health and women's health, that she would expect a CMU to have a birth rate of between 25 and 30 per cent.
“We're at four per cent so there's something far wrong," he said.
“There were 28 who went down by ambulance – so you can imagine that trip on our wonderful roads."
After a day of travel disruption in December, when the A9 was blocked by snow and flights were grounded, campaigners warned there could have been deadly consequences if an emergency had arisen with a pregnant mum. Mr Gunn also pointed out that serious accidents had led to the A9 in Sutherland being closed for lengthy periods two days in a row in September.
“We're well aware of the problems in travelling by road," he said.
“The other thing is, you're jumping in a car with your partner who will probably be in a pretty nervous state and fairly worried. It appears nobody is taking that into consideration.
“Some of those journeys will be done during the night. And there's the added problem that you might have to get somebody organised for any bairns that are left at home.
"There are a hundred and one things that complicate matters.
"This strengthens the argument for an independent inquiry into maternity services in Caithness. Scotland's Best Start programme does not apply to Caithness mothers or babies."
During 2021 there were 10 births in the Wick hospital, while 170 far north mums travelled to Inverness to give birth and five others had to go further south.
Mr Gunn noted that the number of births to Caithness mothers had risen, but added: “We've used the argument that we are losing the Caithness identity. We've only got eight Wickers [born in 2022]."
Thirty-six Caithness women had emergency caesarean sections in Raigmore during 2022, while 70 had elective caesareans there.
All eight babies born in the Caithness CMU were listed as "normal spontaneous births", while 82 of the Caithness births in Raigmore came into this category.
Thirty-three Caithness babies had to return to Raigmore for hip checks last year. Five had to be brought back for hearing checks.
CHAT provides lie-flat car seats for babies having to make the A9 journey. "That allows a safer journey for babies and gives reassurance to the parents," Mr Gunn said.
The group will be passing on the information on local births to Ms Todd and to Scotland's health secretary Humza Yousaf.
The consultant-led maternity unit at Caithness General was downgraded to a midwife-led facility in 2016, and as a consequence most women from the far north now give birth at Raigmore.