31 August 2011 - Slow to decrease, and often overlooked, newborn deaths comprise ever larger share of child deaths

The World Health Organization and Save the Children release most comprehensive newborn death estimates to date and call for more action to reduce newborn mortality

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 programme.

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.

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.

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.”

In New Zealand Save the Children’s EVERY ONE One Thing campaign www.do1thing.org.nz is helping to raise awareness and support for Save the Children’s global effort to save children’s lives.

For more information contact Patrick Watson on 029 770 6213 or email Patrick@savethechildren.org.nz

The full paper will be available here: http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.1001080