Newborn healthcare still a lottery, says global charity

Some 2 million newborn lives could be saved annually with free access to trained health workers, says charity

One million babies die each year within 24 hours of being born, a global charity has warned, deaths that could be prevented with access to free care and a skilled midwife.

The UK-based Save the Children said gaping inequalities in healthcare access were to blame for high newborn mortality rates in poorer nations, and an estimated 1.2 million stillborn deaths each year. With free access to trained health workers, the charity believes 2 million newborn lives could be saved annually.

Common causes of death include treatable conditions such as prolonged labour, maternal infections and pre-eclampsia.

“There remains a deplorable problem of lack of attention to babies in their first days of life,” the charity said in its report Ending Newborn Deaths.

Pakistan had the highest rate of first-day deaths and stillbirths at 40.7 per 1,000 births, the report noted, with Afghanistan, Somalia and Nigeria also ranking among the worst countries for newborn mortality. In India, 56 out of 1,000 newborn babies die in their first month of life, though this figure declines to 26 in 1,000 among the wealthiest 20 per cent of the population.

Worldwide, some 40 million women give birth each year without help. In some areas of rural Afghanistan, there is one midwife for a population of 10,000.

“The first day of a child’s life is the most dangerous and too many mothers give birth alone on the floor of their home or in the bush without any life-saving help,” said Jasmine Whitbread, CEO of Save the Children International. “Many of these deaths could be averted simply if there was someone on hand to make sure the birth took place safely and who knew what to do in a crisis.”

The charity has urged governments, philanthropists and the private sector to back a five-point plan that aims to slash newborn mortality rates by increasing health spending to the World Health Organisation’s recommended minimum of $60 per person and to abolish fees for all maternal, newborn and child health services, including emergency obstetric care. By 2025, the charity said, every birth should be attended by a trained health worker.

“The solutions are well known but need greater political will to give babies a fighting chance of reaching their second day of life,” said Carolyn Miles, president of Save the Children. “Without targeted action, progress made in cutting child mortality through vaccines and tackling malnutrition will stall.”

Newborn deaths, those that happen in the first 28 days of a child’s life, account for nearly half of all under-5 deaths worldwide, according to the United Nations. Child mortality has halved since 1990, from 12.6 million to 6.6 million in 2012, a result of concerted global action on immunisation, family planning and other issues.