On June 30, Pauline Irungu, PATH’s senior policy and advocacy officer in Kenya, took part in the launch of the Every Newborn action plan in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Since the launch of the Every Newborn action plan, I feel more optimistic than ever about the future of newborn health, globally and in Kenya. At the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health Partners’ Forum in Johannesburg last month, I joined hundreds of advocates, each deeply invested in the health of the world’s women, children, and newborns. We gathered to discuss the final months of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and potential new health targets as the world transitions from the MDGs to the Sustainable Development Goals.
A key goal is to reduce the number of preventable newborn deaths. Over the past two decades, improvements in newborn death rates have failed to keep pace with improvements for older children. There is a growing commitment among the global health community to address this failure, and an understanding of what needs to be done to save these young lives. As a major, worldwide, first step, the landmark Every Newborn action plan outlines a strategy to prevent 2.9 million newborn deaths and 2.6 million stillbirths each year.
Where do we go from here?
Attention to newborn health is especially necessary in sub-Saharan African countries, which are making the slowest progress in reducing newborn deaths. I’ve already seen a dramatic increase in commitment to newborn health in Kenya as global initiatives like the MDGs, the Every Newborn action plan, and the UN Commission for Life-Saving Commodities for Women’s and Children’s Health have raised the profile of newborns and highlighted countries’ lagging progress toward health goals.
On behalf of PATH, I’ve been collaborating with partners and the Kenyan government to push forward two groundbreaking initiatives. The first is the Maternal and Newborn Health Scale-Up Strategy and Implementation Plan, which is set to become Kenya’s first policy to focus on key interventions for the three leading causes of newborn deaths: prematurity, sepsis, and birth asphyxia. The second is the development of maternal, newborn, and child health legislation that provides a legal framework to prioritize reducing the deaths of women, newborns, and children. Among other key provisions, the legislation will institutionalize the tracking of newborn deaths, which will help Kenya identify—and fix—gaps in its health system.
As a member of the Every Newborn Political Advocacy Working Group, which seeks to coordinate advocacy action and push for country-level policies that support the plan, I am excited to see Kenya make such strong commitments to newborn health.
Action through innovation
Moving forward, we will need to harness the motivation I witnessed in Johannesburg and direct it toward technological, social, and systems innovations that can contribute to the end of preventable deaths. Kenya, for example, needs creative methods to get all mothers to give birth in health care facilities (40 percent still don’t). We also need inventive ways to keep babies warm in places with limited electricity, to transport newborns from remote locations to health care facilities, to develop technologies to help newborns breathe, and to ensure the financial sustainability of maternal, newborn, and child health services.
Watch Pauline Irungu speak about the importance of innovation for newborn health at the Partner’s Forum.
PATH is working on health innovations that promise to drive down newborn and maternal deaths. More than half of premature babies struggle to breathe, which is one of the reasons premature birth is the leading cause of newborn death. PATH is advancing an affordable bubble continuous positive airway pressure device that can save lives by gently flowing pressurized air into babies’ lungs. We’re also working on solutions for postpartum hemorrhage and preeclampsia/eclampsia—two of the leading causes of maternal death. Five of these groundbreaking newborn health innovations will be featured at USAID’s Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development event from July 30 to August 1 in Washington, DC. These tools will save the lives of newborns as well as women, because babies are less likely to survive when their mothers don’t. According to the action plan, investments in quality care at birth could save the lives of millions of babies and women who die needlessly each year.
Though we—the global health community—have much work to do to end preventable newborn deaths, I am energized about global commitments and the motivating force of the Early Newborn action plan. This motivation will be critical to create real and lasting change for the world’s newborns.
- Pauline Irungu is a senior policy and advocacy officer in our Kenya office.