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Health Experts Attend Global Conference on Infant Mortality

  • Anita Powell

Three million newborns die each year, most of them in the developing world. Experts say most of these deaths are easily preventable, and have met at the Global Newborn Health Conference in South Africa to develop a global plan to reverse this trend.

When Kelvin was born, his 21-year-old mother said she had no clue how to care for an infant - let alone two, since Kelvin has an identical twin, Ken. It has not been easy, said their mother, Thokozani Mkandawire. But at a clinic in inner-city Johannesburg, health workers are teaching mothers like her how to care for and protect their infants.

Three million newborns die each year, most of them within their first week of life. Most deaths are caused by prematurity, infections or birth complications.

The biggest tragedy in that, experts say, is that most of those deaths can be easily prevented.

Medical and aid officials gathered in Johannesburg this week for the conference dedicated to developing strategies to save more newborns.

Dr. Gary Darmstadt of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation says there are several simple and inexpensive practices that could save the majority of these babies. "Things like exclusive breastfeeding. Things like, skin-to-skin care, holding the baby close with the baby against your skin. Mothers can do it, fathers can do it, aunts can do it, neighbors can do it," he explained. "It provides the baby warmth, cuts down on infections, stimulates breastfeeding. Things as simple as washing your hands.”

Many mothers in South Africa already carry their babies on their bodies.

Mary Kinney of Save the Children practices a similar technique, called Kangaroo Mother Care, with 10-week-old Reuben. “Kangaroo Mother Care puts the [baby coos] baby and mother skin-to-skin, so he wouldn’t be wearing his little jersey and I wouldn’t be wearing a top. And it provides thermal care, so it provides warmth for him and it also promotes exclusive breastfeeding for nutritional purposes. And it also makes me more aware of my baby," she stated. "So I can identify early signs of infection to seek care, and in fact it reduces mortality for preterm babies by 50 percent. So it’s proven better than incubator care for preterm babies.”

Experts who attended the conference from more than 50 countries are hoping their recommendations will see infants safely into childhood.

It’s a huge task, and involves many sectors of government, not just health. But the effort will help millions of children to grow and flourish.