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Improving survival rates for newborns in Ethiopia

Across sub-Saharan Africa, babies are seven times more likely to die on the day of their birth than infants in industrialised countries.

Globally, much effort has been put into reducing death rates among young children. But while under-five mortality rates have reduced substantially, very little progress has been made for newborns. According to the charity, Save the Children, the riskiest day of a child’s life is the day of birth, with 1 million infants dying on their first day.

In the 14th edition of its ‘State of the World’s Mothers’ report, Save the Children argues that much more could and should be done to protect newborns. Simple improvements in health services could have dramatic results, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where babies face the greatest risks. Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest newborn mortality rate (34 deaths for every 1,000 live births) and the region has shown the least progress in combating first-day deaths over the last two decades.

Having enough skilled birth attendants is a key issue and some countries in Africa, such as Ethiopia, recognise this. Health officials in Ethiopia are now placing much greater emphasis on improving obstetric care to lower mortality rates among mothers and infants. The Ethiopian government has committed to increasing its number of midwives and health extension workers.

Having received the necessary training, these health workers are able to deliver fast and effective care for newborns. Sometimes this means offering very simple but vital care treatments, such as cleaning the cut umbilical cord with antibiotics to prevent infection or using injectable antibiotics to combat pneumonia and sepsis.

In the ‘State of the World’s Mothers’ report, one case study in Ethiopia illustrates how important such treatments can be. Three years ago, Natnael became feverish when he was brought home by his mother. The newborn was suffering from sepsis, an infection which affects a baby’s entire body. Currently, sepsis is responsible for killing around 15,500 Ethiopian babies each year (equating to around 19% of newborn deaths). Luckily, Natnael was born in a village which had a health extension worker. She persuaded his parents to go to hospital, where the newborn received an antibiotic injection, followed by a daily dose of amoxicillin syrup for a week. His condition improved from the first day and rapid treatment no doubt saved his life. Ethiopian officials hope that by using such simple yet life-saving interventions, the lives of many more newborns can now be saved.
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