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Kangaroo-style care cuts infant mortality in Colombia

In Colombia, 16 infants die before the age of one for every 1,000 live births (according to World Health Organization data for 2009) and premature babies are especially at risk.

Infant mortality is particularly a cause for concern in areas where specialised medical care is unavailable. Now a team in Colombia are trialling a pioneering solution called ‘kangaroo mother care’. This involves a kangaroo-style care of premature babies where infants are held tightly against the skin of their mother or father for as much of the time as possible in the first few months.

The idea for this treatment dates back to the mid 1990s. But now a new study being conducted in Colombia wants to prove ‘kangaroo care’ not only reduces infant mortality and improves growing rates, it also aids cognitive development and brain function compared to premature babies kept in incubators. Speaking to The Guardian, a spokesperson for the Kangaroo Foundation in Bogota told the newspaper that the benefits of this style of care are so apparent, it should be considered as “the model treatment for premature infants” in developing countries.

With the aid of a grant from Canada, the Foundation plans to collect more data in order to support their initial findings. Over the next couple of years, they aim to explore the health of hundreds of teenagers who were once ‘kangaroo babies’ and see how their physical and cognitive development compares with others who were born premature. The researchers hope to prove that the kangaroo method of caring for premature babies can benefit developing countries not only by reducing infant deaths, but also by maximising the potential of children.

Further grants from the government-funded Grand Challenges Canada, will also go towards other projects or initiatives aimed at improving development or reducing child mortality rates. For example, in some developing countries it can take 15 hours for a severely ill child with malaria to reach hospital. This delay can be fatal, because an infection can develop into cerebral malaria which damages the brain and central nervous system. Now a large study is being conducted in countries such as Bangladesh, Ghana and Tanzania, where children have been given a suppository of the anti-malarial drug artesunate before they reach hospital. It is believed this early intervention minimises brain injury and improves recovery.

This study will look at many thousands of children who received such early treatment, now the youngsters are between eight and ten years old. At this age, their cognitive skills can be properly assessed. A spokesperson for the World Health Organization declared “if this can be authoritatively quantified, it would be a major incentive to increase access to anti-malarial drugs – not just to avoid mortality, but to avoid the loss of developmental potential”.

Laurinda Luffman signature