Saving babies

Dr. Merle Lewis and Minister of Health John Boyce.
Dr. Merle Lewis and Minister of Health John Boyce.

New Minister of Health John Boyce has called for neonatal health issues to be placed on the front burning, as such deaths in the developing world are startling.

Boyce, addressing a PAHO-led Regional Strategy and Action Plan for Neonatal Health Evaluation Workshop at Accra Beach Hotel said that each year more than four million babies died in the first four weeks of life, with three million deaths at the neonatal phase. Additionally, he noted that it was estimated that more than 3.3 million babies were “still born” every year, with one in three of these deaths occurring during delivery.

Stating that such deaths could largely be prevented, the minister in his first official address to a grouping of such regional health representatives, then said that it was also regrettable that 98 per cent of the deaths recorded took place in the developing world.

“It is therefore necessary to ensure that neonatal health is prominently placed on the health agenda with a focused approach promoting effective policies and programmes; evidence based interventions for newborn care in health services and communities within a health systems approach; strengthening surveillance systems and targeting the poor and marginalised populations.

“We are all well aware that maternal, neonatal and perinatal are major indicators of overall national development and are considered as important indicators of a country’s health status,” he told the workshop.

Important indicators

Perinatal mortality rates are indicators of maternal care, maternal health and nutrition, he said, adding that these indicators usually reflected the quality of obstetrics and paediatric care available and played an important role in providing the information needed to improve the health status of pregnant women, new mothers and newborns.

“This information allows decision makers to identify problems, track temporal and geographical trends and disparities, and assess changes in public health policy and practice.

“Unfortunately in many countries, neonatal mortality trends have shown practically no progress over the past ten years. This stagnation is believed to be due in part to a lack of programmes specifically targeting neonates, as the focus of previous training and development workshops have been on infants and older children.

“The most common causes of neonatal death in the Latin America and Caribbean region include infections, asphyxia, prematurity, and congenital malformations. While some are direct causes, others, as in most cases of pre-term and low birth weight, may constitute predisposing factors. Several underlying factors also contribute to poor neonatal health including inequalities in access to health care, low percentage of births with skilled birth attendants, and poor maternal health.”

Therefore, he said, focused evidence-based strategies that reflect best practices were needed to accelerate the reduction of neonatal morbidity and mortality globally.

In this region, estimates place new born mortality rates at 60 per cent of infant deaths and under five years, mortality accounted for 36 per cent. “However, the majority of these deaths are avoidable. Mortality rates are highest in Haiti, Bolivia and Guatemala where rates are five to six times higher than in the countries with the lowest mortality rates such as Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba and Uruguay.”

While Barbados still faced challenges with relation to optimal outcomes during the neonatal period, Boyce said the interest and commitment to improving the survival chances of mother and child would continue to occupy the attention of the entire health sector. (LB)

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