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Low-tech methods could save many newborns

By PHILIPP HEINZ   |   March 4, 2005 at 12:05 AM
WASHINGTON, March 4 (UPI) -- An international panel of public-health experts has concluded that 3 million of the 4 million newborn babies who die worldwide each year could be saved by low-tech and low-cost medical interventions.

"We do not need high tech to make a difference," said Vinod Paul, a professor at the All Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, India, where he directs the World Health Organization's Collaborating Center for Training and Research in Newborn Health.

"We believe that the most of these deaths can be prevented with the technology we have today," Paul added.

The panel presented their findings at a media briefing in Washington on Thursday, preceding publication of a series of articles in the British journal The Lancet.

The experts have found that 450 babies under age 4 weeks die each hour, mainly from preventable causes. The deaths during this time, the so-called neonatal period, are are one third higher than the number of all AIDS-related deaths around the world. Although 99 percent of these deaths occur in poor countries, almost all published research on neonatal deaths relates to the 1 percent in rich countries, the experts found.

"In Africa, one of three mothers will lose a child," said Anne Tinker, director of the Saving Newborn Lives initiative at Save the Children, a U.S. non-profit child-assistance organization. "It's time for governments and assistance agencies to take joint responsibility to reduce the needless deaths of women and children. It's about interventions that are available today."

Tinker said knowledge about work hygiene and how to treat a newborn child was at a very low level among the general population in many poor countries around the world. People in local communities should be taught about basic health and hygiene procedures and spread this knowledge, she said, adding that, of neonatal deaths, 20 percent to 40 percent could be prevented on a community level.

"We have a human resources crisis in the Third World, where nurses and doctors are in short supply," Tinker said.

According to the articles in The Lancet, more than one-third of neonatal deaths globally are caused by infections, almost another third by premature birth and a quarter by asphyxia, more commonly known as sudden infant death syndrome or SIDS. A baby in a low-resource, high-mortality country is 11 times more likely to die of infections than a baby in a rich, low-mortality country, concludes one of the articles.

Neonatal tetanus, which has been virtually unseen in rich countries for a century, kills half a million babies each year, another Lancet article concludes.

At the briefing, Tinker held up a hypodermic syringe filled with tetanus vaccine, saying each shot could be delivered for 20 cents to a pregnant woman.

The research published in The Lancet concludes that to provide neonatal health interventions at 90 percent coverage, an extra $4.1 billion per year estimated to be needed, on top of the $2 billion spent currently, for a total of $6.1 billion in the 75 countries with the highest mortality. The additional cost would be less than $1 per inhabitant per year in these countries.

"The global commitment to achieving the Millennium Development Goal for child survival is an unprecedented opportunity to reduce newborn mortality," said Jacques Baudouy, director at the World Bank's Health Nutrition and Population, Human Development Network. Initiated by the United Nations, the Millennium Development Goal calls for a two-thirds reduction in child mortality by 2015 from the base year of 1990.

"We must all take collective responsibility for this global health crisis and commit to working together in close coordination to achieve this goal," Baudouy said.

International health and development agencies -- including the World Health Organization, the World Bank, UNICEF, as well as the Saving Newborn Lives initiative -- contributed to the articles in The Lancet.

The research involved work of academics and health economists from the United Kingdom, United States, Asia and Africa. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development provided funding.

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Philipp Heinz is an intern for UPI. E-mail: sciencemail@upi.com

© 2005 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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