Newborn Deaths, Often Overlooked, Comprise Growing Share of Child Deaths

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Save the Children and the World Health Organization Release Most Comprehensive Newborn Death Estimates to Date, Call for More Action to Reduce Newborn Mortality

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Tanya Weinberg, 202-640-6647(O), 202-247-6610(M)

Washington, D.C. (August 30, 2011) — Increased global focus on maternal and child health too often overlooks newborns, who now account for 41 percent of child deaths, according to a new study published in the medical journal PLoS Medicine today.

“Newborns are barely on the global health agenda and this study lays out the tragic results of that neglect. 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 newborn lives,” said coauthor Dr. Joy Lawn of Save the Children’s Saving Newborn Lives program.

While the United Nations reports annually on deaths of children under ages 5 and 1, estimates for newborn deaths are released only sporadically. This new study – conducted by researchers at the World Health Organization, 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 new study finds that newborn deaths dropped from 4.6 million to 3.3 million between 1990 and 2009. But while the newborn mortality rate dropped 28 percent during that time, it lagged progress on maternal mortality (34 percent reduction) and mortality of older children (37 percent 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 percent to 41 percent and will likely continue growing, the authors said.

U.S. Newborns Now Face Greater Risks than Babies in Malaysia, Cuba, Poland

In 20 years, the United States reduced its newborn mortality rate 26 percent, slower than the global average. More than 19,000 newborns still die each year. The United States now trails 40 other countries when it comes to risk of newborn death. In 1990 the United States had the 28th lowest risk. It is now tied for 41st place with Qatar, Croatia and United Arab Emirates. All have a newborn death rate of 4.3 per 1,000 live births.

But many countries do far worse. Afghan babies face the greatest risk of newborn death, but India has the greatest number of newborn deaths – more than 900,000 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.

Nigeria rose from 5th to 2nd-ranked in 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.

More and Better Trained Health Workers Needed to Save Newborn Lives

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 Lawn. “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.”

The new study is available here.

Learn more about Save the Children’s newborn and child survival campaign and See where the good goes at www.GoodGoes.org.

Save the Children is the leading, independent organization that creates lasting change for children in need in the United States and around the world. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

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