What do all mothers want for Mother’s Day, really? As the mother of two teenagers, I can easily say that year after year, I want my kids to be healthy and happy. But I have it easy and my kids have it all: food, shelter, education, health care and everything they need to be successful in life.
A world away from where I live, the newborn baby girl pictured above is sleeping in an incubator in a neonatal intensive care unit at Kiwoko Hospital in Uganda. She’s two days old in this photo and was born six weeks early. She survived against the odds thanks to two simple steroid injections her mother received when she went into preterm labor. The injections, which cost a mere 50 cents to $1, can help speed up the development of a baby’s lungs and prevent her from going into respiratory distress when she is born. Although I delivered both of my children full term, I would have gotten those steroids routinely had I needed them; they’ve been widely used in high income countries since the 1990′s.
But here are the odds this little girl beat, and the numbers are staggering: more than one million babies worldwide die on the day they are born; nearly three million in the first month. In fact, according to Save the Children’s 14th annual State of the World’s Mothers Report, released, as it is every year, to coincide with Mother’s Day, the newborn period is the riskiest time for both baby and mother the world over.
Rich, poor, industrialized, developing, newborn deaths unfortunately know no boundaries, so much so, that, as Save the Children’s president and CEO Carolyn Miles points out, in some parts of the world “mothers don’t name their children for seven days because so many will die.”
The good news is that overall child mortality has dropped: from 12 million in 1990 to under 7 million in 2011. The bad news is that it’s just not moving fast enough. And what’s really astonishing, is most of these deaths, up to 75% of them in fact, are preventable using low cost, low tech interventions, such as the steroid injections that saved this newborn’s life.
“We will never get to ending preventable child deaths if we don’t focus on newborns,” Miles told me on Wednesday at the U.N. Foundation’s Mom+Social gathering in New York, where she spoke about the report. “Forty three percent of under five deaths are in that newborn period,” Miles said the study shows. “We’ve got to move on it. We’ve got to move the newborn number,” she reiterated.
But what will it take to move it? Save the Children’s report, which this year is called Surviving the First Day, claims the three leading causes of newborn deaths are: prematurity, birth complications and severe infections. Not surprisingly, babies born to the poorest mothers face the greatest challenges to survival, no matter where they live. India faces the gravest problem, and accounts for an astounding 300,000 of the one million deaths said Miles, who just returned from a trip to that country last week. On the other end of the economic spectrum, the United States has by far the most first day deaths in the industrialized world. An estimated 11,300 newborns die each year in the U.S. on the day of their birth, 50% more than all other industrialized nations combined.
As Save the Children found, four simple products: resuscitation devices to help babies breathe, the antiseptic chlorhexidine to prevent umbilical cord infections, injectable antibiotics to treat infections, and antenatal steroid injections to help preterm babies’ lungs develop, can mean the difference between life and death. They all range in price from 13 cents to $6.
“The research we’ve done recently has said ‘we know why these kids are dying, we know what to do’, we just have to get those interventions to where moms and babies need them,” Miles told me. When I asked her if there’s a practical way to deliver those interventions, her answer was yes.
“There are couple of things that are key,” she explained. “One is political will — not only in the donor countries like the United States, and the U.K. and Germany, to continue to fund those kinds of programs — but also in the countries where kids are dying. The leadership in those countries really has to say, ‘Our kids do not need to die.’ It can’t be an accepted thing that we lose a million newborns on the first day. It just can’t be accepted. That’s what we’ve got to change. It can’t be acceptable anymore for that to happen.”
Take a look at this video to see the survival story of another little baby and his mother in Uganda:
Countries like Uganda, which last October pledged to improve prenatal and childbirth care, are moving in the right direction. Along with the governments of Nepal, Bangladesh, Malawi and Ethiopia — some of the poorest countries on Earth — they are showing that it can be done. In the past year, in fact, 170 countries signed on to A Promise Renewed, a global commitment to end child mortality within a generation.
“It’s hard to imagine the depth of one mother’s pain in losing her baby the very day she gives birth, let alone a million times over,” Miles said. “Yet this report is full of hope. It shows there is a growing movement to save newborn lives and growing evidence that we can do it.”
But it will take a lot more than hope to save lives. It will take, as Miles said, political will. It will take the courage to address the underlying causes of infant mortality and lack of heath care, such as gender inequality, education for girls and pregnant women, and proper nutrition. It will also take funding, and the commitment to deliver these very tangible solutions to those who need them most: newborns like the little girl resting in her incubator in Uganda as her lungs grow stronger, thanks to her government’s promise to increase the availability of and access to quality care to the smallest and most innocent lives.
Photo courtesy of Save the Children