World baby deaths estimated to be 5.5 million each year

Despite five-and-a-half million newborn and stillborn baby deaths each year, investment in newborn health remains very low. That’s one of the findings in a series of papers published in the medical journal The Lancet. The research also shows the vast majority of those deaths could be prevented.

Lead researcher Joy Lawn said the research is the most accurate estimate yet on the number of deaths of newborns and stillbirths.

“Every year there are two-point-nine-million babies who die in the first month of life — and most shockingly a million who die on their birthday, the first day. And there are 2.6 million stillbirths — most shockingly, 1.2 million who die while the woman is in labor. So together this is 5.5 million babies,” she said.

Most of the deaths are in low and middle income countries. But rich nations, she said, are not immune. There are about 500,000 pre-term births in the United States every year.

“The three leading causes around the world are pre-term births, birth complications — so where women don’t get the right care during labor. And babies that are full-term can have damage and even die because of lack of care during labor – and then, thirdly, infections,” she said.

Ms. Lawn is a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and an advisor to Save the Children UK. She said many babies and their mothers could be saved for just a few dollars worth of medical care.

“In this series we show very clearly that 71-percent of newborn deaths can be prevented with solutions that we have already. And that together, three-million women, babies – counting newborns and stillbirths – could be saved every year with investments at the time of birth. So that’s a triple return on investment with care at the time of birth,” she said.

That care includes simple things like keeping the baby warm, helping it learn to breast feed and making sure it has skin to skin contact with its mother.

Also, Ms. Lawn said there are injections that can greatly improve the odds of a baby’s survival. One injection prevents tetanus infections, a nearly always fatal condition for babies.

Another contains corticosteroids and is given to women in pre-term labor. Corticosteroids affect stress and immune response and inflammation. They help premature babies improve their breathing. This is standard treatment in rich nations, but not in developing countries. It costs less than one dollar.

Ms. Lawn said that it’s been known for many years that a large number of newborns die. Yet, funding to prevent the problem remains low.

“Of the billions of dollars that are given for child survival, only four percent of that donor funding even mentions the word newborn. And yet 44 percent of under-five deaths are among newborns. So there’s a major mismatch in what the funding is going to compared to where the deaths are now,” she said.

Much of the funding goes towards preventing deaths of mothers and children up to age 5.

In recent years, it’s become more common in the U.S. to issue birth certificates for stillborn babies. Ms. Lawn said it means a lot to parents to know that their child has been recognized. However, what the papers in The Lancet also show is that in many developing countries no record is kept.

Lawn said, “A women who loses a newborn death or a stillbirth in many of the places I’ve worked in Africa – there will be no piece of paper. The baby may not be named. It’s very unlikely there will be any funeral or public recognition. And those things aren’t just sad for the woman, but they hide the whole problem. The fact that in this day and age you can have 5.5 million babies entering and leaving the planet without official record – but also mostly without funerals or recognition – actually stops us acting.”

More than 50 experts from 28 institutions in 17 countries took part in The Lancet series.

In June, a new international initiative is set to be launched called Every Newborn Action Plan. It’s described as an evidence-based roadmap toward care for every women and a healthy start for every newborn baby.

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