World is failing newborn babies, says UNICEF

 A pre-term baby is kept warm in an incubator at the UNICEF-supported Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Assosa General Hospital, in the remote Benishangul-Gumuz region of Ethiopia, Wednesday 17 January 2018. © UNICEF

A pre-term baby is kept warm in an incubator at the UNICEF-supported Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Assosa General Hospital, in the remote Benishangul-Gumuz region of Ethiopia, Wednesday 17 January 2018. © UNICEF

27 deaths per 1,000 births in low-income countries

Global deaths of newborn babies remain alarmingly high, particularly among the world's poorest countries, UNICEF said today in a new report on newborn mortality. Babies born in Japan, Iceland and Singapore have the best chance at survival, while newborns in Pakistan, the Central African Republic and Afghanistan face the worst odds.

"While we have more than halved the number of deaths among children under the age of five in the last quarter century, we have not made similar progress in ending deaths among children less than one month old," said Henrietta H. Fore, UNICEF's Executive Director. "Given that the majority of these deaths are preventable, clearly, we are failing the world's poorest babies."

Globally, in low-income countries, the average newborn mortality rate is 27 deaths per 1,000 births, the report says. In high-income countries, that rate is 3 deaths per 1,000. Newborns from the riskiest places to give birth are up to 50 times more likely to die than those from the safest places.

"While great progress has been achieved on child mortality, 7,000 newborns still die every day around the world. Most of these deaths are preventable, and most occur among the world's most vulnerable communities," said David Morley, UNICEF Canada President and CEO. "We call on governments and leaders to join us in saving millions of children's lives by ensuring that the healthcare system in every country has the funding, equipment and skilled healthcare workers it needs to make sure every baby is born into a safe pair of hands. It's a matter of equity: a child born in Central African Republic should have the same opportunity to see the 22nd Century, as a child born in Canada."

The report also notes that 8 of the 10 most dangerous places to be born are in sub-Saharan Africa, where pregnant women are much less likely to receive assistance during delivery due to poverty, conflict and weak institutions. If every country brought its newborn mortality rate down to the high-income average by 2030, 16 million lives could be saved.

More than 80 per cent of newborn deaths are due to prematurity, complications during birth or infections such as pneumonia and sepsis, the report says. These deaths can be prevented with access to well-trained midwives, along with proven solutions like clean water, disinfectants, breastfeeding within the first hour, skin-to-skin contact and good nutrition. However, a shortage of well-trained health workers and midwives means that thousands don't receive the life-saving support they need to survive. For example, while in Norway there are 218 doctors, nurses and midwives to serve 10,000 people, that ratio is 1 per 10,000 in Somalia.

This month, UNICEF is launching Every Child ALIVE, a global campaign to demand and deliver solutions on behalf of the world's newborns. Through the campaign, UNICEF is issuing an urgent appeal to governments, health care providers, donors, the private sector, families and businesses to keep every child alive by:

  • Recruiting, training, retaining and managing sufficient numbers of doctors, nurses and midwives with expertise in maternal and newborn care;
  • Guaranteeing clean, functional health facilities equipped with water, soap and electricity, within the reach of every mother and baby;
  • Making it a priority to provide every mother and baby with the life-saving drugs and equipment needed for a healthy start in life; and
  • Empowering adolescent girls, mothers and families to demand and receive quality care.

"Every year, 2.6 million newborns around the world do not survive their first month of life. One million of them die the day they are born," said Ms. Fore. "We know we can save the vast majority of these babies with affordable, quality health care solutions for every mother and every newborn. Just a few small steps from all of us can help ensure the first small steps of each of these young lives." 

Anabel Marquez