It may not make front page headlines, but arguably the most important news this week in terms of the potential of number of people reached and the potential transformative effect on societies and the planet is the launch of the Every Newborn Action Plan at the World Health Assembly in Geneva.
This is a bold new plan to reverse an ugly trend: the number of infants who die before their 28th day of life is on the increase. Newborn deaths today account for 44% of total child mortality. This is actually a greater proportion than fifteen years ago (which is in part due to the fact that the global health community has gotten much better at promoting child health). But even though more children are making it to five years old, the international community has so far struggled to promote the health of newborns. According to UNICEF, 2.9 million babies die each year within their first 28 days.
This is where the Every Newborn Action Plan comes in. This is a project spearheaded by UNICEF and the WHO to eliminate preventable newborn deaths by 2035. The action plan is just that–a roadmap for enacting policies and directing funding streams to promote newborn health. It will be launched in Geneva this week at a meeting of global health officials and luminaries.
The good news is the interventions that can dramatically reduce newborn deaths are not expensive. The Lancet published a series of reports yesterday which found that 3 million lives could be saved through simple interventions like training nurses to use a bag and mask to resuscitate newborns who are not breathing; drying a newborn and giving baby to mother for skin to skin contact; breastfeeding in the first hour; and using a very cheap antiseptic to prevent infection of the umbilical chord.
The Action Plan has the backing of the Gates Foundation, among other public and private partners. In her speech to the World Health Assembly yesterday, Melinda Gates puts the importance of this issue into broader context.
To the global health community, newborns are part of a broader continuum. We talk about their lives in the context of five letters: RMNCH. Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health. It’s a cumbersome acronym, but there are good reasons to link those letters together.
In people’s experience, they are inextricably linked. Newborns don’t undergo a transformation on the 29th day of their lives, regardless of the fact that we suddenly categorize them as children. As far asparents are concerned, there is no difference between the N and the C.
And each step along the continuum relies on the previous step.
– If women can plan their families, they are more likely to space their pregnancies.
– If they space their pregnancies, they are more likely to have healthy babies.
– If their babies are healthy, they are more likely to flourish as children.
When mothers have healthy pregnancies, and when children thrive, the positive benefits last a lifetime.
This isn’t true just in developing countries where maternal and child mortality is relatively high. It’s true everywhere. In fact, we keep seeing new evidence that links maternal and child health to non-communicable diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity that increasingly plague all countries.
The data is convincing. If we want flourishing societies tomorrow, we need healthier mothers and children today.
If implemented to its fullest extent, this action plan will certainly save lives — it may also change the world.