Getting new mums to chat about pregnancy and maternal health lowers the risk of babies dying, new research shows.
Researchers working in eastern India found that getting mothers in cut-off communities together for a regular talk helped cut the number of infant deaths.
India struggles with high rates of newborn deaths. For every 1,000 live births, 39 babies die in their first month; a third of these don't survive their first day, according to government estimates. In Jharkhand and Orissa, two of east India's poorest states, the numbers are worse — 49 and 45 deaths in every 1,000 births respectively.
"Too many people in the health community think that health is about delivering little magic bullets to passive poor people," said Anthony Costello of University College London's Institute of Child Health, which ran the project. "What that doesn't do is tap into the solidarity, the collective memory, the sharing, the supporting," he told Time magazine.
The Institute of Child Health teamed up with the Indian welfare organisation Ekjut to show mums what they could achieve themselves to cut the child death rate. The report, out last month in medical journal The Lancet, looked at thousands of women in the poorest eastern states, where medical care can be as much as six hour walk away. Over three years, it persuaded women’s self-help groups to set up to run their own lending schemes, to open up to the community and talk about motherhood.
Women were hand-picked, trained and paid to lead informal talks and collect information about births and infant deaths in their community. The women also carry out emergency drills and keep a stash of saved money to pay for women in labour to be taken to hospital quickly.
The child death rate in theses communities dropped by a huge 47 per cent by the time the project finished in 2008.
Sebati Thakur’s first baby died from a bacterial infection. The 23-year-old started going to the meetings in Orissa with her mother-in-law. She learnt, she says, to "go for checkups, take iron and get a tetanus shot." Last year she gave birth to a healthy girl.
While local women's groups like these are no substitute for professional care for sick newborns, they do encourage common sense activities, like hand washing and good hygiene, says UNICEF's Henri van den Hombergh. "The baby is too cold because it isn't wrapped well; the baby isn't getting enough breast milk; the baby is showing signs of infection. These three simple things are the underlying causes of the majority of all the neonatal deaths in India," he said.
Written by Hayley Jarvis for SOS Children