News / Africa

Newborns Face Severe Infections

Nurses attend newborn babies at the Maternity hospital in Lima, Peru, Monday, Oct. 31, 2011. (AP Photo/Karel Navarro)
Nurses attend newborn babies at the Maternity hospital in Lima, Peru, Monday, Oct. 31, 2011. (AP Photo/Karel Navarro)

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Joe DeCapua

A new study estimates that nearly 7-million newborns a year suffer life-threatening infections. Most go untreated. The infections include sepsis, meningitis and pneumonia.

Listen to De Capua report on newborn infections
Listen to De Capua report on newborn infectionsi
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The study, which appears in The Lancet, said most of the newborn infections – about three-and-a-half-million – occur in South Asia. Sub-Saharan Africa follows with more than two-and-a-half-million and then Latin America with 800,000.

Professor Joy Lawn, who oversaw the research, said, “These estimates aren’t just numbers. They’re guiding us to how many babies have these life threatening infections. And where are they and what should we be doing about it?”

Lawn is with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Save the Children.

She said, “We know that almost three-million newborns die every year – so babies in the first month of life. And in trying to address those we need top focus on the biggest causes. And neonatal infection – or sepsis – is one of those main causes.”

Prior to the study, she said, little data were available on neo-natal infections around the world. As a result, 65 leading researchers from 46 different institutions were recruited to do the research.

Some infections are caused by viruses. But not as much information is available on those compared to bacterial infections. The infections caused by bacteria usually are treatable with antibiotics. Nevertheless, many go untreated because of a lack of awareness as to how serious they are.

“Around the world we still have around 40-million babies that are born at home. So these women maybe haven’t had care when they were pregnant. Maybe delivering at home in a situation that isn’t clean. And in some cultures women are even taken into the cow shed. You know, the dirtiest place because birth is considered a dirty event, so it should be done somewhere dirty. So, the babies may be exposed to infections straight away,” said Lawn.

And symptoms are not always obvious.

“An infection in a small baby – maybe they have a low temperature instead of a high temperature. Maybe they just go quiet instead of shouting at you like an older child would. So these infections can be missed by parents or even by health workers. So one of the things is just the critical need that health workers are able to asses and identify these complications -- that parents know about what to do -- and that we bring care closer to home,” she said.

She said the findings of the study could help guide health program planning for clinical diagnosis and treatment.

Innovation and science could make a big difference. Professor Lawn said infected newborns must be identified, perhaps by developing new rapid diagnostic tests. And they could be treated with newer, safer and easier to use antibiotics.

On Monday, in Johannesburg, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, Graca Machel and others will unveil the Every Newborn action plan to end preventable deaths. The plan calls for 10 or fewer neonatal deaths for every 1000 live births by 2035. 

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