Each year 3.3 million babies die in the first four weeks of life

Increased global focus on maternal and child health too often overlooks newborn deaths, which account for 41 per cent of child deaths, according to a new study published in the medical journal PLoS Medicine.

India has the greatest number of newborn deaths — more than 9 lakh a year. Just five countries now account for more than half of the world's 3.3 million newborn deaths — India, Nigeria, Pakistan, China and Democratic Republic of Congo.

Each year 3.3 million babies still die in the first four weeks of life — despite the existence of proven, cost-effective interventions that could save these newborns, said the study's co-author, Dr. Joy Lawn of Save the Children's ‘Saving Newborn Lives' programme.

While the United Nations reports annually on deaths of children under ages 5 and 1 years, estimates for newborn deaths are released only sporadically. This new study – conducted by researchers at the World Health Organisation, ‘Save the Children' and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine – provides the most comprehensive set of estimates to date, covering all 193 WHO member countries and spanning 20 years.

The study finds that newborn deaths (occurring in less than 28 days) dropped from 4.6 million to 3.3 million between 1990 and 2009. But while the newborn mortality rate dropped 28 per cent during that time, it lagged behind maternal mortality (34 per cent reduction) and mortality of older children (37 per cent reduction for children ages 1 month to 5 years). As a result, the share of child deaths that occur in the newborn period (the first four weeks of life) rose from an already high 37 per cent to 41 per cent and will likely continue growing, the authors said.

Nigeria rose from 5th to 2nd rank in the number of newborn deaths, reflecting the trend that African newborns especially are being left further behind. At the current rate of progress, it will take 155 years for African babies to have the same chance of survival as babies in high-income countries have today. In contrast, it will take babies in Latin America only 30 years to catch up, the study found.

The three leading causes of newborn death – preterm delivery, asphyxia and severe infections – are highly preventable with proper care.

“We know that solutions as simple as keeping newborns warm, clean and properly breastfed can keep them alive, but many countries are in desperate need of more and better trained frontline health workers to teach these basic lifesaving practices,” said Thomas Chandy of ‘Save the Children.”

“The global health worker crisis is the biggest factor in the deaths of mothers and children, and particularly the 3.3 million newborns dying needlessly each year. Training more midwives and more community health workers will allow many more lives to be saved.”

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