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Melinda Gates Pushes to Curb Newborn Deaths

  • Lisa Schlein

Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, speaks during a press conference on the sidelines of the World Health Assembly, on May 20, 2014, in Geneva.

Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, speaks during a press conference on the sidelines of the World Health Assembly, on May 20, 2014, in Geneva.

Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, urged delegates to endorse the first global action plan to end newborn deaths in a keynote address to the World Health Assembly.

Health officials agree that newborn deaths are preventable. Yet nearly 3 million babies die each year within their first 28 days of life. Many do not even get a chance to draw a breath. The World Health Organization (WHO) says 2.6 million babies are stillborn, and more than one million of those deaths occur during labor.

Because of this staggering toll, Gates hopes WHO will pass the Newborn Action Plan by the end of the week. That way, she says, health ministers can immediately start the process of saving these young lives.

At a news conference in Geneva, the philanthropist told journalists five low-cost interventions are very effective in saving newborns, including breastfeeding, methods of resuscitating newborns, preventing and treating infections, and so-called kangaroo care for premature babies. That technique involves prolonged skin-to-skin contact with the mother.

Finding success

Gates says Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Nepal are already applying these interventions with some success.

“Simply by using the health care extension worker, a health community worker platform that they have got and focusing on those newborn deaths, they have been able to bring down not just under-five mortality, but newborn death rates as well," she said. "So, we have those as models and the other African nations and other countries around the world are looking at those three countries to learn what is actually possible by focusing on this.”

Gates says Ethiopia’s newborn death rate has gone down by 28 percent since it began focusing on this issue in the last six years.

As part of the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, great progress has been made in cutting maternal and under-five child mortality. But WHO reports South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa have the highest numbers of newborn deaths every year, with India, Nigeria and Pakistan topping the list.

Maternal mortality

Gates says the issue of newborn deaths has been neglected as a consequence of focusing on maternal mortality.

The lives of mother and child are inextricably linked. Nevertheless, Gates says midwives or community health workers tend to focus on saving the life of the mother during delivery.

“They have seen so many mothers die in childbirth," she said. "So they will focus immediately and sometimes exclusively, unfortunately, on the mother until they have got her in a state, making sure that she is going to survive. And, then they turn to the newborn. So, quite often, you will get in a situation where the baby has got cool over time. Sometimes they will do wrong practice in some countries. They will actually scrub the vernix off the baby, which will introduce infection.”

Gates says it is important to make midwives and community health workers understand they should focus on both mother and child at the same time.

An analysis published by the British journal, The Lancet, shows that progress in reducing newborn mortality lags behind successful efforts to improve the survival rate for children under the age of five. In most regions of the world, more than half of all child deaths are among newborns.

While saving newborn lives is a tender-hearted thing to do, the Lancet notes it also makes good economic sense. It says every dollar invested in newborn survival returns $9 in economic benefits.

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