That's the conclusion of a huge project unveiled Wednesday to enumerate stillbirths country by country and propose ways to reduce them.
Today, there are more stillbirths each year than deaths from AIDS or malaria combined. The stillbirth rate in sub-Saharan Africa is 10 times that of the industrialized world and equivalent to what existed in the United States in 1900. In many places, stillbirths aren't reported to health authorities or counted as deaths.
"Stillbirth is a big problem, and it hasn't been on the global agenda before. We hear a lot about 'overlooked problems,' but this is genuinely one," said Joy E. Lawn, a physician who works in Cape Town, South Africa, and helped lead the effort that produced eight papers published online by the Lancet, a European medical journal.
Historically, the medical community has viewed stillbirth deaths as both less tragic and less preventable than deaths of mothers or children.
"I think what we've ignored in that argument is what the families think. The families don't discount those losses," she said.
About 98 percent of stillbirths — most commonly defined as death in the final trimester of gestation — occur in the developing world. Ten countries account for two-thirds of them, and two-thirds occur in rural families.