When my son Teddy was just two days old and we were due to be released from the hospital, he spiked a fever. The urgent attention that he received as the nurses and doctors feared a newborn infection was frightening to a first time mother. He went from being with me in my room to a special care nursery where he was given IV antibiotics and tested for scary things like meningitis.
Since I was doing fine, and a two-day stay was all that my insurance would cover, they released me from the hospital. It was perhaps the saddest day of my life – being pushed in a wheel chair out the front door of the hospital, empty-handed with quiet tears rolling down my cheeks after nine months of anticipation and excitement. Yet, given my work with Save the Children, I knew he and I were among the lucky ones. He had excellent health workers caring for him and I was just a mile down the road so I could come back every few hours to breastfeed my baby, who may have been sick but was living and fighting. Three days later, after many tests and sleepless nights, he was given a clean bill of health and joined us at home.
Around the world, the empty-handed journey home often has no happy ending. Save the Children’s 14th annual State of the World’s Mothers report focuses on the large numbers of newborns lost every year – 1 million babies on the day they are born. Sadly this global death toll has changed little in the twenty years since Teddy was born. While child death totals overall have dropped 40 per cent, newborn deaths have barely budged. Ending preventable child deaths requires attention to this problem in the United States and around the world.
But there is good news in the report as well. In my son’s lifetime, a number of low-cost interventions have been tried and tested in poor countries and found to be effective at reducing the deaths of newborn babies. Low-cost mechanisms to help health workers get babies breathing are one way to make a dent in birth asphyxia deaths. Antibiotic injections and antiseptics applied to the umbilical stump cut infection deaths. The old conventional wisdom that saving newborn lives was complicated and couldn’t be done in poor countries no longer applies.
Our report highlights how these simple tools in the hands of frontline health workers and midwives, like Ade in Indonesia are the magic one-two punch that can knock out newborn deaths. The health worker piece is essential. Most of these tools are best administered by a trained health worker like a midwife, doctor or nurse, but community health workers who can promote better pregnancy and newborn care including proper breastfeeding are also critical to saving babies through better care in the home.
At www.EveryBeatMatters.org, we share the stories of real health workers who are helping moms and their babies survive around the world. And the featured health workers represent a tiny fraction of the dedicated frontline health workers around the world thanks to investments by the US government, foundations, corporations and individual donors.
When Teddy comes home from college to help me celebrate Mother’s Day this year, I’ll remember what it felt like to leave that hospital empty-handed and how thankful I am for the health worker who were there with both of us that day. It is not really all that difficult to protect newborns from the biggest threats they face, but it does require the presence of health workers with the skills and tools to save babies and their moms.
Every beat matters. Ask any mother.