GENEVA - The World Health Organization is issuing new guidelines aimed at preventing stillborn and newborn deaths. The U.N. agency says recording the cause of death is one of the key steps to preventing these tragedies.
Each year, approximately 2.6 million babies are stillborn and 2.7 million babies die during the first 28 days of life, mostly in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, according to the WHO. While progress has been made in reducing the number of maternal deaths, the agency notes more than 300,000 women per year still die during pregnancy and childbirth.
The WHO’s director of reproductive health and research, Ian Askew, says the key to preventing these deaths is knowledge.
Infant deaths underestimated
He says the number of global infant deaths is grossly underestimated because many countries do not know how many babies die or why this is happening. He says nearly all stillborn and half of all newborn deaths are not recorded and no death certificates are issued.
“So, these numbers are estimates. And, the second problem we face is that because there is no record of the birth or the death of the infant, then it is very hard to know why exactly the death occurred. What happened, what was the cause of the death,” said Askew.
Research sheds light on the causes. It shows infant deaths may happen because of complications during labor or delivery. Some may be associated with an infection in the mother, particularly among women who have diabetes or hypertension, or there may be a problem with the growth of the fetus itself.
Need to document
But, Askew notes, it is hard for countries to know how to prevent these deaths if they do not document the causes. He tells VOA traditional practices or beliefs often hinder the gathering of vital data on infant deaths.
“In many countries, there may be greater stigma around newborn death or around stillbirths that has been historically holding back registering these, particularly with stillbirths where there may be cultural determinations around whether the birth represents a life or not," said Askew. "So, there are many reasons why this guidance is needed.”
Askew says countries that are able to review the causes of maternal and infant deaths can improve the quality of health care, and take corrective actions that ultimately can prevent millions of these tragic deaths from happening.