News / Africa

Study: Millions of Newborns Die Needlessly

An internally displaced Somali woman carries her child as they wait to receive food aid at a distribution centre at Badbaado settlement camp in Somalia's capital Mogadishu, August 18, 2011
An internally displaced Somali woman carries her child as they wait to receive food aid at a distribution centre at Badbaado settlement camp in Somalia's capital Mogadishu, August 18, 2011

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Joe DeCapua

Each year, millions of babies die within the first few weeks of life. A new report from the World Health Organization and Save the Children says many of those newborn deaths are easily preventable.

“This is the most comprehensive picture that we have to date of what’s happening for newborn deaths around the world and over time. And these estimates look at 193 countries and over 20 years,” said Dr. Joy Lawn of Save the Children, co-author of the study.

She said newborns are “barely on the global health agenda.”

So young, so vulnerable

“Every year, in the first month of life, there are 3.3 million babies who die. This is a huge number of deaths. It sounds overwhelming, but each of those deaths is a mother who has lost a baby, a family who has lost an expected life. And so we shouldn’t let the numbers overwhelm each individual tragedy that’s behind those,” she said.

Newborn deaths make up over 40 percent of child deaths worldwide.

India has the highest number of newborn deaths each year – more than 900,000. India, along with Nigeria, Pakistan, China and the Democratic Republic of Congo, accounts for more than half of the 3.3 million deaths.

Slow progress

“In certain areas,” said Lawn, “particularly Africa, there’s been very little progress. The average annual rate of reducing newborn deaths in Africa is less than one percent per year. It’s almost the same as no change.”

At that slow rate of progress, Lawn says it’ll take 155 years for African babies to have the same chance of survival that babies in high income countries have today.

The WHO / Save the Children report cites three main causes of newborn deaths. The first is pre-term delivery, being born too early.

“Doing simple things, like keeping them warm, feeding them better, treating infections, would save them,” she said.

The second leading cause of death for newborns is complications during delivery. “So lack of care at the time of birth, having a midwife, having access to safe care at birth would save the baby and the mother,” said Lawn.

A midwife saved her life.

“I’m a baby born in Africa. I was born in the bush of northern Uganda and my mother had complications in childbirth. And she nearly died and I would have died if people hadn’t made a difference,” she said.

She said having more midwives and healthcare workers in rural areas is critical. The third leading cause of death is infection.

“Here simple prevention – not delivering a baby onto a dirty floor, not putting dirty things on the cord, breastfeeding the baby, giving antibiotics – these are all things that would save these babies lives,” she said.

Lawn is the head of Saving Newborn Lives, a program of Save the Children. She said more investment is needed. But she says that means investing in the “right things to do” for child and maternal care.

“This is particularly critical for the Millennium Development Goals. We now only have four years left until that target in 2015,” she said.

The report says even the United States is not immune from the problem. It says 19,000 newborns die in the U.S. each year. That’s a higher newborn death rate than 40 other countries.

Related video by Vidushi Sinha

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