A two-decade study of 193 nations finds fewer newborns are dying worldwide but the rate of progress is slow. Africa lags other regions in reducing newborn deaths.
The study, release last week by Save the Children and the World Health Organization, found newborn deaths decreased from 4.6 million in 1990 to 3.3 million in 2009. Researchers credit the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, a set of eight benchmarks that all United Nations member countries agreed to achieve by 2015. They range from ending hunger and poverty to ensuring environmental sustainability.
Since the world set out to achieve the goals, there has been more investment in health care for women and children in the last decade. Consequently, the researchers say, there has been more rapid progress each year in survival of mothers (2.3 percent) and children under the age of five (2.1 percent) compared to newborns (1.7 percent).
That helps to explain why today newborn deaths (those in the first four weeks of life) account for 41 percent of all child deaths before age five — increasing from 37 percent in 1990. The three leading causes of newborn death are preterm delivery, severe infections and asphyxia, according to the report.
“Newborn survival is being left behind despite well-documented, cost-effective solutions to prevent these deaths,” lamented Dr. Flavia Bustreo, WHO assistant director-general for family, women’s and children’s health.
The researchers discovered a huge disparity between wealthy and poor nations. Developing countries account for nearly all deaths of newborn children, almost 99 percent, the study found. More than half occur in five countries: India, Nigeria, Pakistan, China and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
India accounts for 28 percent of the worldwide total — more than 900,000. Nigeria moved up from fifth place in 1990 and is now ranked second in newborn mortality.
“This study shows in stark terms that where babies are born dramatically influences their chances of survival,” stated co-author Dr. Joy Lawn, “and that especially in Africa far too many mothers experience the heartbreak of losing their baby.”
Indeed, Africa has seen little progress in the past 20 years — just a 1 percent reduction in newborn deaths per year. Among the 15 countries with more than 39 newborn deaths per 1,000 live births, 12 were from the WHO African region (Angola, Burundi, Chad, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique and Sierra Leone).
Researchers noted that at the current rate of progress it would take the African continent more than 150 years to reach newborn survival rates in the United States and Great Britain.
“Millions of babies should not be dying when there are proven, cost-effective interventions to prevent the leading causes of newborn death,” Lawn said.
Bustreo added that “more attention and action for newborns are critical,” as the deadline to achieve the U.N. long-range goals approaches.