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Kangaroo Method Keeps Newborns Alive in Senegal

Alarming numbers of newborns die every day in Africa. One Senegalese medical team is using a low-cost method inspired by nature to keep babies alive.

At a health center in a sprawling Dakar suburb, a tiny baby was born Monday one and a half months premature. He weighs just over a kilo and hasn't yet developed the ability to breastfeed.

Every year, 7,000 babies are born at this health center in Guédiawaye and one in five are underweight. Incubators are scarce and hospital care is too expensive for many families. But now mothers with premature babies are learning how to save their baby's life using a method from an unlikely source: the kangaroo.

The Kangaroo Method was created in 1978 in Colombia.

Ousmane Ndiaye is a neo-natologist who recently introduced the method to Senegal as part of a program funded by UNICEF and Senegal's Ministry of Health.

Ndiaye says the objective of the kangaroo method, also called the skin-on-skin method, is to keep the newborn warm. The method was inspired by the kangaroo, an animal that gives birth to a very small baby after 30 days of pregnancy. In fact, he says, kangaroos were specially designed to give birth to premature offspring.

Guédiawaye's health center now has a unit devoted solely to promoting the kangaroo method for premature babies and since the program began, Ndiaye says, all of the newborns have survived.

One out of every 20 newborns die in West and Central Africa. This is largely due to low birth-weight caused by premature births and mothers suffering from malaria, anemia and malnutrition. The region has the highest neonatal mortality rate in the world.

Incubators are difficult to maintain and most clinics do without. Ndiaye believes a mother's warmth is more effective than a machine. It is also free.

Ndiaye says the most important benefit of the kangaroo method is the mother's affection that babies do not get in an incubator. It is important, he says, because the mother is participating in the healing process which is essential. Studies have shown that a baby who benefits from a mother's touch is more relaxed and develops better.

Babies under two kilos born at the Guédiawaye health center are referred to a midwife who helps mothers understand the kangaroo method. Mothers keep the naked baby wrapped to their bare chest all day long, so the baby stays warm and the mother's heartbeat keeps the baby's breathing regular.

Koumba Gueye's third child was born a month and half early. She found the method strange at first. But now a month later, she says it saved her son's life.

Gueye says she was very worried when her baby was born. He was so little she wondered if he would survive. But now she sees him getting bigger and is reassured. She says she never takes him out of the pouch even though people look at her strangely because she is carrying him on her front instead of her back.

Ousmane Ndiaye says many mothers first come to the Kangaroo Clinic worried for their baby and skeptical of the method. But as they look around the room and see the progress of other babies, they are reassured. And as their own babies grow, they are converted to the kangaroo approach.

Ndiaye says there are plans to expand the program to clinics nationwide. But the key, he says, is that women embrace the method themselves and pass it on to others.