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Report: Low Cost Measures Can Save Lives of African Newborns

A new report calls sub-Saharan Africa the most dangerous region in the world for a baby to be born. But the report by the World Health Organization says there are proven low-cost measures that can save hundreds of thousands of newborn lives that now are being lost. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from WHO headquarters in Geneva, where the report was launched.

The report says each year nearly 1.2 million babies in sub-Saharan Africa die in the first 28 days of life. The director of WHO's Child and Adolescent Health department, Elizabeth Mason, says about 800,000 of these lives could be saved by applying a few simple medical procedures and providing pregnant women with information.

"For example, if 90 percent of women and babies received these interventions, including immunizing women against tetanus preventing neo-natal tetanus, providing a skilled attendant at birth, treating newborn infections promptly and educating mothers about proper hygiene, keeping the baby warm and exclusively breast-feeding their infant," she said.

Dr. Mason says these interventions are not expensive. She says saving the lives of newborns in Africa would cost about $1.40 per capita, or $1 billion a year.

WHO reports up to half a million African babies die on the day they are born - and most of these deaths occur at home. It notes Liberia has the world's highest newborn mortality rate, at 66 deaths per 1,000 births compared to less than two deaths per 1,000 births in Japan.

It says half of Africa's 1.16 million newborn deaths occur in just five countries - Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda. Nigeria alone, it says, has over 255,000 newborn deaths each year.

But the report also says six low-income African countries have made significant progress in reducing deaths among newborn babies. It notes the reduction ranges from 20 percent in Tanzania and Malawi to 39 percent in Burkina Faso and 47 percent in Eritrea.

Dr. Mason says Eritrea is an example of a country that is poor, but has made a significant dent in newborn mortality because it began investing in this problem 20 years ago.

"They have systematically over the past 20 years looked at the infrastructure," she said. "I think where we have countries that have looked at the infrastructure and provision of skilled attendants for delivery of babies, than they have managed to significantly reduce the mortality in this period. At the same time, they have also reduced, usually maternal mortality."

The report says efforts to prevent newborn babies from dying may also save the lives of mothers of newborns. At present, about 250,000 mothers of newborns die each year in Africa.