‘Hidden tragedy’: Poor countries face highest baby mortality rates

‘Clearly, we are failing the world’s poorest babies,’ says Unicef chief following report

A mother and her newborn at the Colonial War memorial hospital in Suva Fiji. Photograph: Unicef

A mother and her newborn at the Colonial War memorial hospital in Suva Fiji. Photograph: Unicef


Global deaths of newborn babies remain alarmingly high, particularly among the world’s poorest countries, according to a new report published by Unicef.

“While we have more than halved the number of deaths among children under the age of five in the last quarter century, we have not made similar progress in ending deaths among children less than one month old,” said Henrietta H Fore, Unicef’s executive director. “Given that the majority of these deaths are preventable, clearly, we are failing the world’s poorest babies.”

More babies are dying each year in West and Central Africa even as child health improves overall. Five of the 10 most dangerous countries to be born are in West and Central Africa, with infants there 50 times more likely to die within a month than if they were born in Japan or Iceland, according to the report.

Babies born in Japan, Iceland and Singapore have the best odds of survival globally, while newborns in Pakistan, Central African Republic and Afghanistan are the worst off, Unicef said.

One in 16 pregnancies in the region results in stillbirth or death within a month - mostly preventable deaths caused by premature birth, labour complications or infection, Unicef said.

“Neonatal health hasn’t really been addressed by governments or institutions,” according to Unicef’s regional health specialist, Alain Prual.

While the infant mortality rate is slowly declining, population growth means that the number of deaths is still increasing in West and Central Africa, Mr Prual said.

For years aid agencies have focused on reducing deaths of children under five, which have dropped sharply, said Laurent Hiffler of medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF).

Yet babies are still dying at high rates in the first month after they are born, he said.

“Neonatal mortality reveals the weaknesses in the system,” said Mr Hiffler, adding that it is difficult to address because it requires continuous care throughout pregnancy and birth.

“It’s been a neglected tragedy . . . a hidden tragedy.”

Only one in two women in the region gives birth in a health facility, often because clinics are few and far between and they cannot afford to travel, according to Unicef.

Even when women can access a health centre, staff are often poorly trained and ill-equipped, added Mr Hiffler.

MSF teaches women simple birth techniques that can be carried out at home, such as basic resuscitation skills and using skin-to-skin contact to warm up premature babies, he said. –Reuters