South Asia is a dangerous place to be born
In 2018, one million newborn babies died before they reached one month of age. My wish for 2019 is that we will see many more South Asia babies getting the urgent attention and quality care that they need and deserve.
Right now, as you read this, babies that have just been born here in South Asia are battling for their lives. The lucky ones are in a special newborn care unit with doctors and nurses working hard to keep them alive – keeping them warm; giving them oxygen and antibiotics if they need them. For too many, the battle will be lost before their lives even properly begin.
South Asia is a dangerous place to be born. In 2018, one million newborn babies died before they reached one month of age. Every one of these deaths is a tragedy for the family. And the sheer number of deaths is an outrage. This number – one million newborn baby deaths – is 40% of all newborn deaths if we look around the globe. The risk of dying is the same for a South Asian newborn as it is for a baby in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The availability of clinics and hospitals is still an issue in some places, as is transport to get to them on time. But this is no longer the main problem. The key issue is how good, or how bad, the care for pregnant mothers and newborns is. When we know that every year, one million babies here in our region will be dead within the first month of being born, we have a strong indication that the quality of care is simply not good enough.
The good news that I can share is that mothers and families actually can do a lot themselves to counter the threat of poor care. They are far from powerless and they are crucial to improving this situation. They can start by looking critically at the care they get when a new baby is on its way. There are very visible signs of quality care to look for at their clinic or hospital. It starts with the fundamentals: Is the place clean? Look at the health care workers: are they able and willing to answer your questions? Are they washing their hands before they touch you and the baby? You don’t need a medical degree to look for these signs and they will be a good indicator of how well the mother, the birth and child will be handled.
What can you do if you do not feel comfortable with the quality? The answer is to speak up! Bring to the attention of the director of the clinic or hospital. Post your concerns about the quality on social media. Or talk to a journalist who might be able to write a story about it. Each one of us may have very little power, but together we are powerful. And if more mothers and families complain about the lack of appropriate care, we have better chances of improving the situation for the next newborn. You really do have a crucial part to play in creating change.
At home, mothers and families can also help ensure that a baby has the best chances of survival. Making sure that no girl becomes pregnant before she is 20 years old and her body can sustain a healthy pregnancy and is fully developed to give birth will help improve South Asia’s grave newborn death statistics. Families can help make sure that an expecting mother gets her first medical check within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. That way, she can be given advice and problems can be detected before too long has passed. And, by choosing to breastfeed and to start breastfeeding right after the baby is born, the mother is giving her newborn the best chances to survive that first month when the new baby girl or boy is extremely vulnerable.
So, there is plenty that mothers and families can do to help protect their newborns. It is not all in the hands of doctors, nurses and birth attendants.
My wish for 2019 is that we will see many more South Asia babies getting the urgent attention and quality care that they need and deserve. Every child has the right to survive – and I wish for joy and happiness in every new family with a healthy and thriving newborn.
Jean Gough is regional director, Unicef for South Asia
The views expressed are personal