Save the Children: Mothers Worldwide Face Serious Challenges
This week, Save the Children released its annual State of the World’s Mothers report. Each year, the report ranks the best and worst places in the world for mothers and their children. In addition, Save the Children uses the State of the World’s Mothers report to focus attention on a specific issue related to maternal, neonatal and child health. This year, the theme of the report is “Surviving the First Day.” According to the report, nearly 3 million babies die within the first month of life every year. Eighty percent of these deaths can be attributed to three causes: preterm births, severe infections, and complications during childbirth. Babies in industrialized countries like the United States also face these risks, but nearly all women in developed nations give birth in health facilities where doctors, nurses, and midwives have the knowledge and resources to intervene. But in the developing world, 40 million women a year give birth at home without the help of a skilled birth attendant, and 2 million of those women give birth completely alone.
Sub-Saharan Africa is considered to be the riskiest place in the world to have a baby. There are not enough health care workers to deliver children safely, and pregnant women lack access to essential resources, such as prenatal care and transportation to a birthing facility. In Africa, babies born in rural areas were found to be 20 percent more likely to die compared to those in urban areas, and those regional disparities are not easily resolved. In addition, sub-Saharan Africa only has 11 doctors, nurses, and midwives per 10,000 people – a severe shortage of health care workers. Those already in the field might not have the skills necessary to save newborn lives. Scaling up access to care and training, recruiting health care workers, and integrating maternal, neonatal, and child health into other health services –such as HIV care and treatment and nutrition – are essential to reducing neonatal mortality, but require global collaboration and investments.
The number of newborns who die on their first day of life is particularly devastating, given the simplicity of the interventions that could save them. Four products, all costing between US $0.13 and $6, could reduce newborn deaths by as much as 75 percent if health workers are trained to use them. These products help babies breathe, ensure they are not exposed to infections when their umbilical cords are cut, and cure infections that are easily treatable in more developed countries.
In many ways, efforts to save newborns are similar to those needed to create an AIDS-free generation. Much of the progress in reducing neonatal mortality has been in places where people are easiest to reach – just as the 57 percent of HIV-positive pregnant women who receive antiretroviral medication to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV were more accessible than the 43 percent who do not. Promoting adequate nutrition among pregnant women will reduce low-weight births, and it will also keep mothers with HIV healthy as malnutrition causes faster disease progression. These efforts should be implemented simultaneously and collaboratively to maximize maternal, neonatal, and child health outcomes.
Ending preventable child deaths must be a top priority on the global health agenda. We have the tools and the knowledge to keep infants happy and healthy. One day, a baby in the Democratic Republic of the Congo will have the same chance at survival as one born in Finland.
Samantha Ritter is Public Policy Associate for the Foundation, based in Washington, D.C.