February 27, 2014 |

How can a government policy help save lives?

Zambia incorporates newborn care into its national strategy for managing childhood illness. Will the move help save babies?
Man wearing gloves pricks a young girl's finger to test for malaria.
A health worker tests a child for malaria as a part of a mass test and treat campaign to create malaria-free zones in Zambia. Photograph: Laura Newman/PATH.

Just before ringing in 2014, my country made a groundbreaking commitment to end preventable newborn deaths. After a year of collaboration with PATH and other newborn health advocates, Zambia’s government signed off on a policy that includes newborn care in the national Integrated Management of Childhood Illness strategy.

The strategy ensures that health systems focus on the well-being of the whole child to correctly diagnose and treat the leading killers of children. In the case of Zambia, it now includes the unique needs of newborns, including sepsis and umbilical cord infection.

I’ve seen the need for this firsthand. My country has made great progress in lowering the child mortality rate, but many newborns still die—34 for every 1,000 babies born. Expanding programs and policies aimed at helping babies survive the first days and weeks of life will enable us to move toward ending preventable child deaths.

How policy changes lives

How can a policy change like revising Zambia’s Integrated Management of Childhood Illness strategy save lives? One example is its inclusion of chlorhexidine, a low-cost medicine to prevent umbilical cord infection. As secretariat of the Chlorhexidine Working Group, PATH has worked with other organizations to adapt this decades-old antiseptic into a new formulation for umbilical cord use. When the medicine is readily available, as many as 23 percent of babies who die before they reach 28 days old can be saved—for less than 50 cents a dose.

In this video, PATH’s Trish Coffey explains how for less than 50 cents a dose, chlorhexidine could save an estimated 422,000 newborns over the next five years.

Here’s to Zambia

Change came about because PATH and other advocates for newborn health—including Save the Children, UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and the Zambia Pediatrics Association—joined with the government of Zambia to launch a framework to reduce newborn death and illness by 2015. We then brought stakeholders together to revive the national strategy. With tremendous support from Zambia’s Ministry of Community Development and Ministry of Health, we made sure the strategy prioritized integration of newborn care.

I’m incredibly proud to see my country show leadership in caring for our newborns. Zambia’s next task is to ensure that the strategy translates to action at the community level. For now, however, congratulations to Zambia for answering the global call to end preventable newborn deaths.

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