A PUBLIC health officer has said more work needs to be done as it emerged that smoking has been linked to the deaths of four children in County Durham and Darlington.

Parts of County Durham have some of the highest rates of mothers still smoking at the time of delivery in the country.

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A Durham County Council scrutiny meeting heard last week that smoking at home and during pregnancy had been linked with the deaths of four children.

The findings were made by the Child Death Overview Panel for County Durham and Darlington, which has reviewed a total of 39 cases since 2015 - of which four were found to have "modifiable factors", that is smoking in the home or during pregnancy.

In 2018/19 a total of 24 children from County Durham and four from Darlington died.

Of the deaths assessed, 69 per cent were less than a year old when they died, and most were classed as "expected".

Gill O’Neill, Durham County Council’s deputy director of public health, said more work needed to be done to reduce smoking during pregnancy.

She said: “Reducing tobacco dependency in pregnancy is a priority for County Durham’s health and wellbeing board. Any child death is a tragedy and we know that stopping smoking can reduce the risks of still births, low birth weight and child death within the first year of life.

“With a national target of reducing the number of women smoking at the time of delivery to less than five per cent, there is a lot that all organisations involved need to do to achieve this important ambition.

“Here in County Durham, we want all babies to be born to non-smoking mothers, and there are many support services available to help mums-to-be give up smoking, including midwives, health visitors and our specialist stop smoking service.

“We are also working with women and families to understand any barriers to giving up smoking and to put appropriate support in place.”

The number of women still smoking at the time of delivery has increased in recent years despite efforts to reduce it.

The most recent statistics suggest 18.7 per cent of mothers in County Durham smoke at the time of delivery, rising to 20.6 per cent in Sedgefield, above the national average of 10.9 per cent.

The previous year, 17.2 per cent of women –or 844 of the 4,908 women who had babies – in County Durham were smoking at the time of delivery

A three-year plan has been developed by the County Durham Tobacco Dependency in Pregnancy steering group, with the aim to reduce tobacco dependency in pregnancy to 6 per cent or less by 2022.

The report to the Child Death Overview Panel also highlighted issues including substance abuse by parents, mental health problems and access to health services.

Among the recommendations was a public awareness campaign on paracetamol and potential dangers of regular use.

Anyone interested in finding out about help available to give up smoking should contact Smokefreelife County Durham on 0191 369 2016 or visit www.smokefreelifecountydurham.co.uk.